By Chris Lundy and Bob Vosseller
BERKELEY – More than 46 acres of land off Route 9, in the area commonly known as the WOBM pit, will be preserved using Ocean County Natural Lands Trust funds.
The fund is fueled by an open space tax on all properties in the county. The purchases are on Route 9 and Grant Concourse, and owned by two different owners. They were bought for $1.9 million and $1,050,000 respectively.
“This is a key acquisition for the natural lands trust program. We worked closely with Berkeley Township in order to preserve this property,” Ocean County Commissioner Virginia E. Haines said. She is the liaison to the County’s open space program.
Berkeley Township Mayor Carmen Amato and Council President John A. Bacchione extended their appreciation on behalf of the township to the Board of Commissioners noting this was an important purchase for both the Township and the County.
“We appreciate the County’s ongoing efforts to preserve land as open space. Working together, this land will now forever be preserved,” Amato said.
There were two different applications submitted for what was called the Berkeley Nine Estates, according to authorities. The Board of Adjustment application consisted of 115 age restricted units. The Planning Board application consisted of 91 single family units and 1 mixed use lot which had four office/retail units on the ground floor with five residential apartments on the second floor. There was also a proposal for 190 units of garden apartments.
“This preservation is a positive step for all of us,” Amato said. The land is located in an area overlay zone which provides for high density residential and or mixed residential and retail development.
Berkeley has pledged to police the 46.51-acre property with the hopes of curtailing some of the damage and public safety hazards being created by off-road vehicles which are prohibited.
The location will be eventually be home to a park which could include soccer fields, Amato said. The town will apply for Green Acres funding in the 2025 grant cycle.
“This will be a big help in restricting improper use of these lands. We appreciate the Township’s efforts to reduce the damage we have been experiencing,” County Committeewoman Virginia Haines said.
Berkeley Township has provided $241,000 toward the sale and will also donate about 18 acres adjacent to the county rail trail to be preserved.
Bacchione explained, “this donation will help to buffer Ocean County’s Barnegat Branch Trail which is adjacent to the site.”
It was noted that there is evidence on the site of threatened and endangered species habitat, namely with sightings of the barred owl. Minimal ponding and depressions on the site also provide habitat for various amphibian species.
Director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners Joseph H. Vicari said, “working in partnership with our municipalities like Berkeley Township and our environmental agencies brings many benefits to our open space program. The partnerships help preserve more land and in turn protects more of our environment.”
Nearby residents had urged the government to stop development in that area. Route 9 is already overcrowded during peak times, and the roads accessing the property were not made for high traffic. An online petition stated “Our roads are already overburdened with horrendous traffic…our water aquifer cannot withstand even more impervious surface being laid, without proper replenishment due to those roads. This developer is asking the Planning Board to accept their application for many variances. Variances that seek to change the current specifications the town already has in place. Zoning that was put in place to meet state regulations should not be overlooked and overturned simply because enough money was thrown at the issue!”
Next to this acquisition was a previous acquisition of nearly 12 acres, in 2022, called Victorian Pines, Amato said. Victorian Pines had a plan for 35 single family homes and is opposite of the Eastern Boulevard Soccer Complex on one side and the Ocean County Rail Trail on the other. This was acquired with the county as well.
“With these three recent open space purchases, along with our land donation, we have successfully stopped a minimum of 150 homes or 190 garden apartments from being built and preserving 74 acres forever,” he said.
In related news, there will be a hearing about open space at the next Planning Board meeting which starts at 6 p.m. on May 18 at Town Hall, 627 Pinewald Keswick Road, Bayville. The purpose of the hearing is to amend the Recreation and Open Space Inventory Element Of The Master Plan Report to include newly acquired open space.
Documents and maps will be posted to the town’s website at twp.berkeley.nj.us/ eight days before the hearing. They can also be looked at in the clerk’s office in town hall during normal business hours or by reaching the Planning Board secretary at GNapolitano@BerkeleyTownship.org. Questions or comments can be sent to that email at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. They must include your name and address, which will be read into the record.