The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has announced "one of the most significant land deals” in its history, the purchase of a nearly 1,400-acre Cumberland County farm, according to Gov. Phil Murphy’s office.
The property, known as Holly Farm, is in Millville and is owned by Atlantic City Electric. The parcel will connect two nature preserves.
The farm is between the Menantico Creek and the Manumuskin River, both federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. Officials say the two Nature Conservancy preserves the farm will connect will be donated to the DEP. All that will expand the Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area by more than 5,500 acres.
The area drains into the Delaware Bay, part of the Delaware River Watershed.
Financial terms have not been made public. Officials said those details will be announced when the purchase is complete.
In 2010, developers proposed a 950-unit senior housing development and nine-hole golf course on the site, but the deal fell through.
The 1,380-acre Holly Farm is in an outlying area of Millville near Routes 49 and 55.
Previously, the tract was used for gravel and sand mining, leaving large holes that are now ponds. At one time, a holly orchard was planted on the site. It was abandoned, though holly trees still cover a large portion of the property and give the tract its name.
There is a vacant conference center on the site, as well as a parking lot. It is not considered part of the Pinelands National Reserve and other state-protected areas, so its preservation was key, state officials said.
“Safeguarding New Jersey’s interconnected open spaces and diverse ecosystem is critically important in protecting our environment,” Murphy said in a statement announcing the deal.
Murphy said the farm will become part of the state’s arsenal against the impacts of climate change because it provides a large plot of land that can “store large amounts of carbon emissions” and absorb water during storms.
DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe called the purchase “a tremendous accomplishment for the state of New Jersey, our conservation partners, and residents.” The deal protects wildlife habitat and eliminates the threat of development, she noted.
Holly Farm is part of an area the DEP deems a National Heritage Priority Site, and provides habitat for seven rare plant species.
The threatened Pine Barrens tree frog has been found at the site, as have pine, scarlet, and corn snakes, barred owls, red-headed woodpeckers, Cooper’s hawks, and the dotted skipper butterfly. Officials say the property is a nesting and forage area for 71 species of breeding birds and nine species of migratory birds. It provides a buffer of land for bald eagles, least tern, and ospreys.
A variety of nonprofit and conservation groups helped the DEP find the money for the purchase through the Open Space Institute for land surveys and plans for possible improvements, including the Nature Conservancy, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, New Jersey Audubon, Natural Lands, and the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions and Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River.
“NJ Audubon thanks Atlantic City Electric, the Murphy administration and DEP for preserving the Holly Farm,” said Eric Stiles, president and CEO of the New Jersey Audubon Society.
Environmental advocates lauded the agreement.
“We applaud today’s announcement and are honored to support the New Jersey Green Acres Program on this momentous land preservation achievement,” said Michele Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. "Ecotourism is a major economic force in this region, and the preservation of the Holly Farm will boost public visitation and enjoyment, bringing much needed economic benefits to the area.”