The thought of thousands of kids and their families traveling from across the country to a small town in South Jersey’s Pine Barrens for soccer tournaments has a sod farmer seeing green and residents seeing red.
Indian Mills Farms LLC, a sod farm in Shamong Township, Burlington County, wants to create up to 40 soccer fields on about 45 acres of its land, and parking on another 30 acres, and to host tournaments from March to November. The Gardner family, which has owned the farm for a century, hopes to replicate the success of Tuckahoe Turf Farms in neighboring Hammonton, Atlantic County. That farm’s owners say soccer has given them more opportunities to show off their sod, which helped to boost sales after the demand for new homes — and sod — tanked a decade ago.
But Hammonton has a population of roughly 14,000, a quaint downtown of about four blocks where businesses have seen more customers during matches played on the edge of town. Shamong, on the other hand, has roughly 6,500 residents and no defined downtown. The farm there would host tournaments close to residential neighborhoods.
While Hammonton officials say they haven’t heard complaints, about 150 Shamong residents packed a land use meeting at the township building this week — roughly half of them either standing along the walls of the room or spilling out into the hallway — to oppose Indian Mills Farms’ plan, citing concerns about increased traffic on country roads, noise and trash, and the possibility of losing Shamong’s small-town feel. More than 1,800 people have signed a petition opposing the tournaments.
"This is a neighborhood. This doesn’t belong in a neighborhood,” Brandi Palazzo, who lives with her husband, Will, and their two dogs about 600 feet from the farm, said during about an hour of residents speaking. "I can’t believe anyone would be willing to put our community through this.”
The opposite reactions in the two towns along Route 206 underscore a reality of local government: What works in one place might not work down the road.
Hammonton’s restaurants and specialty shops benefit when kids in cleats and their families and coaches come to town, town and business officials said.
“People do get a nice little bump from them being there,” said John Runfolo, executive director of the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce. Town officials have discussed adding a hotel to try to hold onto visitors who leave to stay the night in Mount Laurel or Marlton.
When William F. Harrison, an attorney representing Indian Mills Farms, highlighted potential benefits for local businesses at this week’s meeting in Shamong as well as for the farm, residents scoffed.
Marketing is a problem for a lot of sod farms, Harrison said. After all, they can’t offer "agritainment” — farm-related tourism — such as corn mazes or pick-your-own blueberry and strawberry festivals.
“Pure and simple, he’s marketing his crop," Harrison said of owner John Gardner. "This is an important agriculture use.” A farmland preservation easement limits development.
EDP Soccer, the organization that brings tournaments to Hammonton and would do the same in Shamong, would help promote the sod, Harrison said. The owners of Indian Mills Farms are asking township officials to allow them to host soccer for two years, after which they are confident sales will have expanded enough that they don’t need to continue, Harrison said.
Shamong Mayor Michael DiCroce said he was “a little bit surprised” so many people came out against the farm’s plans.
"People’s knee-jerk reaction is ‘We don’t want that in our town.’ And I can understand that,” DiCroce said. “We are literally small-town America. And we love what we have here.”
On the other hand, he said he’s always looking for new ways for people to discover Shamong, its businesses, and the opportunities it offers for biking, horse riding, and canoeing.
“I’d like to be open for business if we can," while “trying to keep the flavor of the town,” he said.
One woman who boards horses at her nearby farm said at Tuesday’s meeting that she empathizes with her fellow farmer’s effort to bring in revenue, but increased traffic would make getting horses into Wharton State Forest more difficult and harm her own business, she said.
Shamong’s land use board ruled Tuesday that the farm needs to apply for an exception to the township code in order for its plans to move forward. DiCroce noted that the farm’s owner will have the chance to further describe plans to residents, address people’s concerns, and offer solutions at a meeting next month. But he acknowledged there may be no way to get some residents on board.