Melcer, who did not return phone calls for comment, was lauded by environmentalists in 2001 when he sold 1,443 acres to the Trust for Public Lands in an area of Ocean County known as Turkey Swamp.
But environmentalists are not applauding the developer's latest move.
"This is the hole in the doughnut . . . of protected lands that the State of New Jersey and the federal government have spent millions of dollars on in the last 25 years to protect," said Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which has worked on the project. "The development will be a gash in the heart of this land to the extent that, environmentally, it may never recover."
Millville officials have said the upscale housing of the tentatively named Preserve at Holly Ridge would bring needed construction jobs and hundreds of millions in tax ratables to the economically downtrodden city.
Since the 1980s, about 27,000 acres surrounding the old Holly Farm tract have been purchased with public and private funds, creating a patchwork greenbelt bounded by the eastern edge of Cumberland County, the western boundary of Atlantic County, and the northwestern section of Cape May County.
Two waterways federally protected as Wild and Scenic Rivers - the tea-colored Manumuskin and Menantico - run through the area.
"The ecological characteristics of this property are unparalleled in New Jersey," said Jane Morton Galetto, president of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and Its Tributaries, which has been trying to safeguard Holly Farm and the surrounding lands since the early 1980s.
The property, off Route 49, is home to species such as the bald eagle, the least tern, the osprey, and the Pine Barrens tree frog. Pine and scarlet snakes, barred owls, redheaded woodpeckers, and Cooper's hawks are abundant. Rare dotted skipper butterflies migrate through seasonally, as do dozens of bird species.
The tract also provides habitat for seven plants threatened with extinction, including the sensitive joint-vetch, which is protected federally and globally.
And the land acts as a filter to cleanse rainwater runoff that flows into the protected waterways and into groundwater, said Eric Stiles, spokesman for the New Jersey Audubon Society and other environmentalists.
Greg Reinert, director of the state Board of Public Utilities, said his agency was charged with determining only whether the developer's $4 million bid for the property was in the best interest of the state's utility ratepayers.
A $2.5 million offer by the New Jersey Green Acres Program simply couldn't compete, he said.
Environmental groups contend, however, that the preservation offer was superior because it would essentially be a lump-sum payment, rather than spreading the payments over four years as the developer has proposed. The property was appraised at $1.8 million in the early 2000s.
Millville officials have said the project could be a shot in the arm in a city that has struggled economically for decades. A development with 900 homes and a golf course could generate construction jobs and increase tax ratables by at least $220 million. Mayor Tim Shannon did not return calls for comment.
The Holly Farm gave Millville its "Holly City of America" moniker in the 1950s when a local high school teacher, Dan Fenton, began cultivating more than 4,000 American holly trees on the property. Fenton ultimately developed more than 14 cultivars there, including varieties for the wives of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Offspring of the original plants remain on the grounds of the White House today.
When Holly Farm closed in the 1970s, the property became overgrown and eventually was acquired by the utility for possible expansion.
Reinert said "basic math" indicated the developer's offer was a better deal, and that's why the petition passed in a 3-1 vote. Sandra May, a spokeswoman for Atlantic City Electric, confirmed that the deal was moving forward.
But Galetto, of Citizens United, said the BPU's vote, while discouraging, was not the end of the road.
"The decision by the BPU only strengthens our resolve to see that this property is placed in public ownership in order to protect the interests of the people of our state and to leave an important legacy for their children and grandchildren," she said.
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.