Hamilton Residents Organize & Win Against Youth Sport Complex
By Heidi Yeh
In yet another case of ‘redevelopment’ being targeted at forests and fields that have never actually been developed, a developer was proposing to build a youth sports, entertainment, and hospitality complex to be named “Trophy Park”. The site in question is forested land contiguous with the Pomona Woods Preserve. The idea was initially welcomed by the Township Committee, but opposition grew as awareness spread among the township’s residents. Despite the pressure exerted by residents, township officials seemed intent on approving the plan, for which an MOU was already in place. Although much of the action around this issue was in Hamilton Township, it turns out that the most consequential actions were actually being taken 40+ miles away in New Lisbon, home of the Pinelands Commission.
A Hamilton resident showed up at the January 2023 and December 2022 meetings of the Pinelands Commission to express their concerns with the development plan brewing in Hamilton Township during the general public comment period. The development plans had not progressed far enough to formally come before the Pinelands Commission as an application for development. Since this was their first time hearing about the issue, the Commission members appeared understandably confused about the actual issue being raised. However, these repeated pleas did get the attention of the Executive Director and staff, who then helped Hamilton township officials to get the record straight on what is and isn’t allowable on the land in question. The major conflict at hand: public sewer is not allowed in rural development areas of the Pinelands.
A sports complex designed to host 2,000 overnight visitors, as well as hotels and sports facilities on the site would have far exceeded the capacity of any septic system. Apparently, the township officials had been unaware of this conflict with Pinelands rules, so their earlier approvals of the plans were made in error. However, by the time the developer had finished his unhinged tirade against the town’s employees at a March 21, 2023 meeting of the Township Council, township officials seemed uninterested in offering any apologies.
Major conflicts like this can usually be identified very early in the process by holding a pre-application meeting with staff of the Pinelands Commission to talk through major aspects of a development idea. The applicant could have saved himself the headache of dealing with flip-flopping township officials by doing this leg-work first. Quotes from the developer reveal an unfounded confidence that he would have been able to get his way with the Commission, as if it were just another case of red-tape needing to be cleared. He clearly didn’t understand what he was up against, as the changes that he was proposing would require an actual amendment to the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP). Amendments are sometimes made (albeit slowly) to improve the functionality of the CMP, such as incorporating the latest science as a basis for Commission decisions. Since the rules that govern the CMP are not set in stone, they require constant vigilance by citizens and organizations like PPA to be upheld.
Despite this significant victory, residents who want to see the forest preserved cannot rest on their laurels. The plot is still zoned for low-density residential development, so developers could still plan to build houses on the property that conform to the existing rules. Residents must now take proactive action to get the land permanently preserved, using any of the conservation mechanisms described above. With the lucrative land sale to the developer of “Trophy Park” now off the table, the possibility exists for the landowners to consider an application to NJDEP’s Green Acres program. If the land is successfully purchased for conservation, there is also the question of who will manage the land. Although the Natural Lands Trust owns the contiguous land of the Pomona Woods Preserve, its own management of the land leaves much to be desired. Establishing a ‘Friends’ organization of committed locals may be the best way to ensure the ongoing care of the land.
If you are concerned about a development proposal in your community, then let us know! We have a ‘tip’ form where you can provide some basic information about a project that has been proposed in your town. We also encourage you to connect with neighbors and organize around mutual concerns through our Pinelands Community Network.
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