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Preservation of large Glouco space appears at hand

A years-long effort to preserve the rolling hills, meadows, and grassland of Maple Ridge - once destined for a housing development - is nearing fruition.

A years-long effort to preserve the rolling hills, meadows, and grassland of Maple Ridge - once destined for a housing development - is nearing fruition.

Maple Ridge, the Gloucester County open space that spans Deptford and Mantua Townships and abuts Wenonah, closed as a golf course in 2006. Residents and environmental groups have been pushing to acquire the land since.

A development firm in Washington snatched up the 112-acre property but has been open to selling due to the housing slump. Voters in Mantua rejected ballot measures in 2008 and 2009 to increase the open-space tax to support a potential bid by Gloucester County and New Jersey to buy the land, dimming prospects for preservation.

Now, money is available at the state and county levels, and conservation groups such as the South Jersey Land and Water Trust and Friends of Maple Ridge have raised $150,000 over the last couple of years to help buy the land and use it as a park.

"It was because of that public support that we were able to get everyone else to commit," said Christine Nolan, executive director of South Jersey Land and Water Trust, adding that her group received a $250,000 grant from the Frank H. Stewart Trust, which funds preservation efforts in South Jersey.

"Then everyone else fell in line," including the county and state, she said. "We got everybody to tour the property. Everybody said, 'Yes, this needs to be a park.' It's a beautiful, nice piece of property surrounded by a large population that can use the park."

That was encouraging for people like Rich Dilks, 65, of Wenonah, who helped jump-start a grass-roots campaign to preserve the land. Since 2008, he has served on the Wenonah Environmental Commission. Dilks and others note that the land is home to 70 bird species, including bald eagles and red-tailed hawks, and other wildlife. Mantua Creek runs through the land.

In 2008, a member of Dilks' group contacted the developer, IBG Partners, which had initially proposed building about 140 houses. It was interested in selling.

IBG had been working to get approvals for residential development in Deptford, but "rather than continue the time and expense of completing our approvals," IBG decided to sell, said Scott Fuller, executive vice president.

There was one problem: The Deptford planning board had already approved the development of affordable housing on the land, and the state Green Acres Program refused to finance the purchase.

"Everything stopped," Deptford Mayor Paul Medany said last week in an interview. "When they got close to getting money, that's when Green Acres threw this monkey wrench in it. Everybody hit the panic button."

But in April, the planning board developed a way to carve off two acres from the proposed parkland that would be used for housing. That plan is under review by the state Coalition on Affordable Housing, said Tammori C. Petty, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs.

Green Acres funding will hinge on COAH's approval of the plan, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said.

Gloucester County is also set to contribute funding and will likely delegate maintenance of the park to Mantua Township, said Ken Atkinson, director for the county's Office of Land Preservation.

Dilks, who is also head of Friends of Maple Ridge, believes his efforts are finally paying off.

"I hate to make predictions, but we really hope this summer will be the summer to get the land preserved," he said.