today's phila inquirer



Millville land sale causes stir

Developers want to build an adult community. Critics say wildlife must be protected.

By Jacqueline L. Urgo

Inquirer Staff Writer

MILLVILLE, N.J. - The name of a 900-unit adult community planned for one of the environmentally sensitive areas in the state strikes environmentalists as ironic: The Preserve at Holly Ridge.

The 1,486-acre tract, which lies east of this Cumberland County town's downtown, is situated between the Menantico and Manumuskin Rivers - "ecological jewels" designated as part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. The site is surrounded by thousands of acres of state and privately preserved lands and is part of the Manumuskin River Natural Heritage Priority Site, home to rare plant and animal species. It is also where the Holly Farm, the holly business that brought national fame to Millville through the 1970s, was located.

Conectiv Power, the utility that owns the property, has petitioned the state Board of Public Utilities for permission to sell it for $4 million to development entities Millville 1350 L.L.C. and R.W.V. Land & C.M. Livestock L.L.C. The companies are owned by Lakewood, N.J., resident Chaim Melcer, the lone individual named on the petition.

A hearing on the petition will be held this spring and will be limited to testimony by environmentalists and Melcer and his associates.

On Friday, Melcer declined to comment on the project or the controversy. He referred calls to Lawrence Bathgate, a major Republican fund-raiser in New Jersey, who he said was another partner in the companies. Bathgate did not return calls.

"There's nothing involving preservation associated with this Conectiv petition whatsoever. It's about development and, ultimately, destroying an ecological oasis," said Jane M. Galetto, president of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and Its Tributaries. "The only areas they are proposing to preserve in their plan are wetlands areas on the property that DEP regulations won't allow them to develop."

Preliminary plans for the project show that development would occur on about 13 percent of the property, with the remaining 87 percent of the site undeveloped.

In the 1990s, when the property was owned by Atlantic Electric - purchased by Conectiv several years ago - the utility built a conference center and a small peak generating station, according to Betty Kennedy, a Conectiv spokeswoman.

She said Conectiv found that it had no viable plans for the property and decided two years ago to liquidate it. "Now we are simply waiting to see whether the [utilities board] will approve our proposed sale," Kennedy said. She declined to comment further.

Proponents of the plan, including Millville Mayor Jim Quinn, say the development could provide the help this struggling former glass-factory town needs.

The mayor calls the 55-and-over Preserve at Holly Ridge a "national model for environmental planning" that would bring about $200 million in much-needed tax ratables to the economically strapped town, without stressing schools and other public services.

Millville, with a population of 27,000, has $660 million in tax ratables on its rolls, or about $24,500 per person. The average state ratable-to-population ratio is $60,000 per person, Quinn said.

But some say development of the old Holly Farm is the wrong strategy.

The site is so rich in protected and endangered species that the state Department of Environmental Protection agreed in 1999 to pay $2.5 million to Conectiv in a lump-sum payment from the Green Acres funds to stop development there. The appraised value of the land is $1.8 million.

The agency has been attempting to purchase the property since 1996 after Atlantic Electric proposed building a coal fire generator.

Assistant DEP director Jose L. Fernandez testified before the Board of Public Utilities in December that the proposed high-density housing development and golf course "would result in an island of development surrounded by preserved open space - a worse example of destructive sprawl that has plagued land use in our state's past."

Fernandez said the proposed development is in contrast to Gov. McGreevey's Smart Growth Initiative and the DEP's corresponding plan to provide permanent protection for endangered species.

The location and characteristics "narrowly" fall outside federal and state coastal regulations and Pinelands Commission regulation, but the residential complex and golf course "portend a plethora of regulatory hurdles," Fernandez said.

"It is foreseeable that state permits will be required to address sewage capacity, water allocation, stream encroachment, wetland preservation, tidelands claims, and endangered-species concerns," Fernandez said. "The contemplated complications devalue that offer."

The Holly Farm gave Millville its moniker, "The Holly City of America," when, in the 1950s, Dan Fenton, an agriculture teacher from the local high school, planted more than 4,000 American hollies on the property and developed 14 more cultivars of the plant there.

Fenton created "first lady" holly-tree varieties he called "Mamie Eisenhower" and "Eleanor," named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wife. Offspring of the original plants remain on the grounds of the White House.

The Holly Farm closed in the 1970s, and, over the years, the property became little-used and overgrown, allowing for what environmentalists say is among the most bio-diverse areas in the region. The site contains endangered Pine Barrens species, maritime elements of the Delaware Bayshore forest region, and animals such as the southern gray treefrog and the bald eagle.

The New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program classifies the entire site as "critical" endangered-species habitat, said Thomas Gilmore, president of the New Jersey Audubon Society.

Citizens United, along with other environmental interest groups - and the developer - were granted "intervenor status" by the public-utilities board earlier this month and will now be allowed to present on the record testimony in a special meeting.

The utilities board had closed the record on Conectiv's petition to allow the sale more than two months ago, but decided to reopen it because "of the many elements involved," according to George Riepy, assistant director of the board.