A partnership of a dozen public agencies and nonprofit organizations, led by New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the Hopewell Valley Citizens Group, worked together to purchase land located at the former Western Electric/AT&T property for $7.5 million from owner Equus Capital Partners, formerly known as Berwind Property Group.
In a separate transaction, Mercer County and Hopewell Township purchased an additional 11 acres on the east side of Carter Road. New Jersey Conservation now holds a right of first refusal on another 11 acres on the west side of Carter Road, where an abandoned, derelict hotel-conference center will be demolished and the site restored by Equus.
The preservation project settles years of litigation brought by Hopewell Valley Citizens Group challenging commercial development of the rural property. The site had received general development plan and preliminary site plan approval for numerous office buildings totaling 800,000 square feet, roads and parking all on the east side of Carter Road. Traffic studies found it would generate up to 4,000 commuter vehicles a day using the region’s local roads to get to and from rural Carter Road.
This settlement also permanently ends legal challenges brought by the owner to terminate an existing conservation easement governing the entire west side of Carter Road and to reacquire ownership of a 65 acre parcel on the west side that was deeded in fee to Hopewell Township. The owner proposed to use that land for a high density residential development that would bring up to 500 additional vehicles to area roads.
“Developing this land as proposed would have had permanent impacts on the region, and we’re extremely grateful to all of our partners for making this preservation project possible,” said Michele S. Byers, executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “This was a massive collaborative effort to settle litigation and create a new public park.”
Mercer County and Hopewell Township stepped in early with public funding commitments totaling $3.5 million and $2 million, respectively. “The project could not have been successfully concluded without Katherine Dresdner’s persistence and determination, and the support and leadership of Mercer County and Hopewell Township,” said Byers.
“The resolution of the litigation via this settlement and land purchase is a win for everyone. It is very important to save this land from development and protect our natural resources. We thank all our partners and the public for their extraordinary support, especially New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Mercer County and Hopewell Township,” said Katherine V. Dresdner, general counsel for the Hopewell Valley Citizens Group.
The newly-preserved property will provide land for passive recreation, as well as critical habitat for threatened and endangered species. The deal also provides for the completion of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, 30-mile-long regional trail system for walkers and bicyclists, by allowing it to go through the property.
Major public funding for the land acquisition was provided by Mercer County, Hopewell Township, and the state Green Acres Program. Private funds were donated from the Robert Wood Johnson Charitable 1962 Trust, Bristol Myers Squibb and more than 150 local businesses, families and individuals.
“Mercer County is pleased to be a partner in the preservation of the Equus/Carter Road property,” said Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes. “This permanent preservation of over 250 acres on both sides of Carter Road will ensure the rural character of this area forever. In the not too distant future, the Lawrence Hopewell Trail will traverse these fields and woodlands, enabling residents to hike, bike and run through the property and beyond.
“Future development of the site is limited to an additional 20,000 square feet and the dormitory eyesore will be removed in a matter of months,” he added. “These cooperative projects make the most of the county’s Open Space Trust Fund; we thank our many partners for their participation and patience as this project finally becomes a reality.”
Mercer County utilized its Non-Profit Assistance Program and funds from its Open Space, Recreation and Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund to provide $3.5 million to help fund the project. Partners included five municipalities (Princeton, Hopewell Township, Lawrence Township, Pennington Borough, Hopewell Borough) and four land trusts (New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Friends of Princeton Open Space, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, D&R Greenway Land Trust.) Mercer County also agreed to purchase additional 11 acres on the east side of Carter Road for an addition $632,500 in a separate transaction that required the demolition of the west side conference center by the Equus.
Green Acres provided grants totaling $1.33 million to several partners, including Mercer County, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, Hopewell Borough, and Pennington Borough.
“The Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program is pleased to have assisted in preserving this regionally significant property,” said Richard Boornazian, Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources. “I commend our preservation partners for taking this unique opportunity to protect an important greenway connector that links existing public open space.”
In addition to contributing its Mercer County grant, Hopewell Township added $2 million from its municipal open space trust fund. The Township’s $2 million was used to provide the required matching funds for Mercer County’s assistance grants.
“Hopewell Township’s support for this important acquisition demonstrates our continuing commitment to preserving open space,” said Hopewell Township Mayor Harvey Lester.
“It is so exciting to see this very important open space preservation initiative come to a close after working for so many years to bring it to fruition,” said Hopewell Committeewoman and former mayor Vanessa Sandom. “The township is lucky to have had the steadfast support and partnership of numerous municipalities and open space preservation groups, and we should all celebrate this work together. Most importantly, we thank New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Mercer County for their leadership in guiding us through the intricate plan. It is with great personal joy that I say “Hooray” to all the individual donors and groups who have given so much of their time and money to make this happen!”
Private Funds Raised
The Hopewell Valley Citizens Group, whose litigation to stop development on the site launched the preservation effort, partnered with New Jersey Conservation on a private fundraising campaign. More than $1.4 million was raised through private donations. The two groups will launch a continued effort to raise funds for stewardship of the land.
The newly-preserved land includes forests, grasslands, meadows, and two Category 1 tributaries of the Stony Brook. There are some trails originally created by Western Electric. The land is contiguous or very near to numerous parcels of preserved open space and farmland owned by Hopewell Township, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, Stony Brook–Millstone Watershed, DoubleBrook Farm, Princeton University and the D&R Greenway Land Trust.
“Preservation of this property saves a major gateway to the Hopewell Valley from overdevelopment and protects fields and woodlands that provide significant habitat and opportunities for passive recreation,” said Patricia Sziber, executive director of the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. “This is a real milestone in decades of effort to protect the rural character of the region and we are very pleased to be a partner in this project.”
“The preservation of this land marks a critical step in achieving a conservation vision for the region, while settling years of contention and litigation,” said Jim Waltman, Executive Director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. “The Watershed Association has been advocating against inappropriate development proposals for this area for more than a decade and we are very pleased to be a partner in ensuring that these lands will be preserved in perpetuity.”
The buildings on the east side will be subdivided from the site and will be retained by the current owner for continued office/research use. Future development is limited to no more than 20,000 square feet that may only be added to an existing building. No new buildings will be allowed.
Unique Cold War Connection
The Carter Road property is the first corporate park ever created in the United States. Built during the Cold War by Western Electric, the 360-acre site included an underground nuclear bunker for the use of the President of the United States and a runway for the President’s plane in the event of a nuclear attack.
Western Electric constructed only three buildings, a private wastewater treatment plant, walking paths for access to the buildings, and an arboretum. A 176,000-square-foot conference/dormitory on the west side – now abandoned and slated for demolition – had a cutting edge photovoltaic panel array used as a solar water heater for the dormitory.
Western Electric also re-purposed a historic farmhouse on the east side dating back to 1830. Subsequent owners AT&T and Lucent did not develop the campus any further.
Surrounding towns, which would have been severely impacted by traffic if the site were developed for commercial or residential uses, agreed to contribute their Green Acres and Mercer County grant funds to the project. Princeton and Lawrence Township agreed to contribute their Mercer County grants.
“Pennington Borough is proud to partner with our neighboring municipalities, non-profits and residents to preserve an environmentally significant and centrally located piece of property that would otherwise have been developed for commercial use,” said Pennington Mayor Tony Persichilli.
“The expansion of the green belt surrounding the Borough is a positive development for everyone who lives or travels in Hopewell Valley,” said Hopewell Borough Mayor Paul Anzano. “I would like to thank all of our partners who made preserving this land a reality.”
“It is the larger regional impact of interconnected preservation among partners that makes this new acquisition especially valuable,” said Linda J. Mead, President and CEO of D&R Greenway Land Trust, pointing out the land’s proximity to other open space and farmland.
The land acquisition will allow for the construction of a link in the northern loop of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail.
“We’ve been working to create a family-friendly biking and walking trail through Hopewell and Lawrence Townships since 2002, and this acquisition will enable us to extend the trail through the northeastern part of Hopewell. We are thrilled,” said Becky Taylor, co-president of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail.
“The acquisition is another example of the power of community engagement and collaboration. The next step for the LHT is to use grants from Hopewell Township and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to build a trail segment that will open the property to the community,” added the Lawrence Hopewell Trail’s other co-president, Eleanor Horne.
In the late 1990s, Townsend Property Trust of Maryland purchased the entire 360 acres for major commercial development. Townsend sought approval in 1998 for a highly controversial General Development Plan that allowed 800,000 square feet of office space.
In response to community opposition, Townsend promised it would build a costly bypass road to save the nearby Village of Mt. Rose and its historic crossroads intersection. The Township Planning Board approved the Townsend GDP in early 1999.
After ongoing discussions about preserving the west side, in March 2000 Townsend donated the entire west side of the site to Hopewell Township for permanent use as permanent open space. A conservation easement was recorded in 2002.
Townsend did not finalize its site plan approvals and sold the entire site – including the preserved west side – in 2004 to Berwind Property Group, a national private equity real estate conglomerate. Berwind wanted to develop the site for residential and commercial uses.
Berwind first applied for approval to build a housing development on the west side, despite the existing conservation easement. After that plan failed, in 2007 Berwind applied for preliminary site plan approval for five new office buildings, roads, and thousands of parking spaces on the east side of Carter Road. Berwind’s preliminary site plan was approved in September 2008, despite strenuous community opposition.
Hopewell Valley Citizens Group Formed
In 2008, the Hopewell Valley Citizens Group, a non-profit environmental advocacy group represented by Katherine V. Dresdner, Esq., was organized to file a legal challenge. New Jersey Conservation Foundation joined the litigation as a Friend of the Court (amicus curiae) after the Citizens’ Group petition was accepted by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2010.
In January 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hopewell Valley Citizens Group. After the Citizens Group added a claim that the developer’s permits could not be extended because the site had environmentally sensitive lands, Berwind announced that it was abandoning its approved plan for the 800,000 sq ft commercial development. Instead Berwind proposed a new high-density housing plan for the west side of Carter Road – on the land previously deeded in fee to Hopewell Township and protected by the conservation easement. Berwind filed cross-claims against Hopewell Township to terminate the easement and for ownership of the township’s 65 acres.
In the spring of 2011, Hopewell Valley Citizens Group proposed to settle the litigation by purchasing and preserving the land. The Hopewell Valley Citizens Group partnered with New Jersey Conservation to negotiate a contract and secure funding for the land purchase. The settlement protects the conservation easement from the threat of termination and the 65 acres the developer had proposed to take back from Hopewell Township.