The forested road to the vacant Brian A. Parent Center is lined by a string of unlighted lampposts, emblematic of once-big dreams for 1,380 acres known as Holly Farm.
The conference center and its cupola loom over a field, swallowed on all sides by thick woods. A rusty windmill once used for irrigation spins uselessly nearby.
Mike Powers refers to the building as “the Mansion.” Trespassing motorcyclists spin doughnuts on its lawn, spattering its brick walls and tall windows with mud.
“This was used for company meetings,” Powers says of the center, built by Atlantic City Electric Co.
Powers, a senior real estate representative for the utility, was on site last week on the property known as Holly Farm, shortly after the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection agreed to buy it. The sale provided a key link for a vast, continuous swath of the Garden State that now is protected from development.
But the deal that marks a big win for environmentalists infuriates those who think the area — one of New Jersey’s poorest — needs jobs and tax revenue far more than another nature preserve.
About 45 miles southeast of Philadelphia, Holly Farm is mostly in Millville. It sits between Menantico Creek and Manumuskin Creek, two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. They both feed into the ecologically sensitive Delaware Estuary, part of the Delaware River Watershed, and harbor abundant wildlife, some endangered.
As part of the deal, the Nature Conservancy will turn over two tracts it owns to the state. The state will add Holly Farm and the Nature Conservancy land to the existing Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area, which will swell to 6,000 acres of protected land.
Eric Olsen, who coordinates work within the Delaware River Watershed for the Nature Conservancy, calls Holly Farm the “doughnut hole” that will fill a gap his group has sought to protect since the 1980s.
The purchase price hasn’t been disclosed.
The Holly Farm property was used for agriculture in the 1940s. Over time, it was also used for sand and gravel mining, leaving “blue hole” ponds now filled with water.
Atlantic City Electric bought the land in the 1980s to build a power plant, which never materialized. It grew trees there to replace trees it had to cut down elsewhere. And it erected the conference center.
The utility has long wanted to be rid of the property, and past deals have collapsed as backlash from environmental groups grew.
In the early 2000s, development plans also grew. But it wasn’t until 2010 that Atlantic City Electric finally made headway.
It had agreed to sell to Holly Ridge Group LLC, which planned to build 950 senior housing units and a nine-hole golf course. Lawrence Bathgate II, a wealthy lawyer and major GOP fund-raiser based in Ocean County, was a principal in Holly Ridge Group.
Local officials, eyeing potential tax revenue, embraced the plan.
Because the land was owned by a utility, however, the sale hinged on approval from the state Board of Public Utilities, then under the administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
BPU granted the request in 2010 and environmentalists cried foul, claiming politics were behind it.
Nevertheless, Holly Ridge Group bought the land for $4 million, and Atlantic City Electric lent the purchaser $3.6 million and held the mortgage, records show.
But before it could develop the land, the Holly Ridge Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 2016.
Dakota Power Partners LLC, a Colorado-based company, offered $8.4 million for the property, seeking to build a large solar array. The company pledged to make local annual payments of $600,000 in lieu of property taxes, for a total of $18 million over 30 years, according to the Vineland Daily Journal. A delighted Millville city commission endorsed the plan in May 2019.
But before the sale could go through, Holly Ridge missed payment on a note and Atlantic City Electric foreclosed.
Tuckahoe Turf Farms also wanted to buy the property, according to the company’s business administrator, Allen Carter. Based in Hammonton, the farm supplies turf for soccer and NFL stadiums, including Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles. It wanted to expand.
Carter said Tuckahoe planned to use 500 acres of Holly Farm for growing sod and hosting large soccer tournaments. The remainder of the property would be preserved. Tuckahoe expected to hire 30 people and pay an estimated $75,000 a year in taxes.
But the state, now under a Democratic administration, decided to snap up the property for preservation.
“So to have all that land suddenly taken out of production was like, ‘Ack,' " Carter said of the state’s acquisition. “It’s just a lost opportunity for the City of Millville and businesses in the area. At what point do we say there’s enough preservation?”
Millville officials did not respond to a request for comment. But Millville Vice Mayor James Parent told the Daily Journal that the sale to the state was “disappointing,” saying that “major” taxable land was lost.
“Environmental protection is always a balancing act, and we understand the concerns of the local officials,” state DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe said Friday.
“Given this area’s proximity to densely populated areas like Philadelphia and the rest of New Jersey,” McCabe said, “we also see the economic potential for this property to help make the county an ecotourism destination for tens of thousands of visitors.”