WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP - A 52-acre family farm of cornfields, meadows and memories will become a recreation area in this growing Gloucester County municipality.
Sisters Betty Scafini, 52, of Voorhees, and Joan Johnston, 53, of Bristol, Pa., have agreed to deed the sprawling Salina Road property, formerly known as Zimmerman Farm, to Gloucester County for $4 million as part of the county's open-space and farmland preservation program.
At a Dec. 20 ceremony to rename the tract the Franklin G. Zimmerman Park, in honor of their father, Scafini and Johnston recalled their childhood summers picking and packing the sweet corn that was grown there.
Their father, who died two years ago at age 89, bought the property in 1941 for $4,000, said the sisters, who grew up in a farmhouse nearby.
He would have been pleased to know that the old place will be spared - not developed, as so much former farmland surrounding their old homestead has been, they said.
"For my dad to walk this property his entire life and have it turned into a park, I think he would be happy," Scafini said.
Scafini and Johnston said it was in that spirit of preservation that they had agreed to take what is likely a much lower price for the property than if they had sold it to developers. New two-story homes across the street from the future park sell for over $500,000.
The area - and particularly Washington Township, which has a population of about 48,500 - is a valued for its close proximity to the employment centers of Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
The township's share of the land purchase cost was $1 million. The remainder was paid by the county, which will likely seek a reimbursement from the state Green Acres Program, officials said.
Purchasing the property for preservation and public use was a coup, said Freeholder Director Stephen M. Sweeney.
"We realize that we have a limited window of time before there is no land left to preserve," Sweeney said.
Gloucester County's population is projected to increase by 35 percent by 2035, according to Gloucester County Freeholder Deputy Director Robert M. Damminger, a liaison to the county's Land Preservation Office.
Last year, the agency acquired more than 250 acres that will be kept as open space, Damminger said. So far, more than 14,000 acres of farmland and open space have been preserved, he said.
Except for a new sign, the Zimmerman tract will likely remain as it is for the time being. Eventually the township will create nature and walking trails, wildlife observation areas, athletic fields and playgrounds on the site, officials said.