Project's shadow creeps over old camp site in Burlington County

At Liberty Lake Camp, youngsters enjoy a swim on a hot summer day. The camp, though, may soon be a neighbor to a collection of warehouses.
At Liberty Lake Camp, youngsters enjoy a swim on a hot summer day. The camp, though, may soon be a neighbor to a collection of warehouses. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 10, 2012

Andy Pritikin spied a gaggle of children waiting to scramble up an outdoor climbing wall.

"Where's the cowbells?" he asked the camp counselor leading the activity, one of many unfolding on the lush grass of Liberty Lake Camp in Mansfield Township.

The owner and director of the camp, Pritikin wanted the children to have one more reason to push on to the top. Quickly, he got on his walkie-talkie to ask the office staff if the bells had arrived.

Such gleeful scenes have been repeated at the Burlington County day camp for generations, but Pritikin, who has owned it since 2005, says a shadow is creeping over it - the prospect of a warehouse "the size of seven Home Depots" looming over his tree-studded, 60-acre site.

The "eyesore" of a warehouse and tractor-trailer traffic he would try to buffer with trees, he says, but he fears all the new construction - including three warehouses on another boundary - would likely worsen a flooding problem enough to put his camp out of business.

He acknowledges that Alan Margolis, the Boca Raton, Fla., developer who owns the 200-acre cornfield adjacent to the camp, has the right to build there since the field is in a commercial zone. But Pritikin wants the plans scaled back, especially for the largest warehouse that would be perched on a height and look down on his camp.

"I am trying to protect my business from washing away," he said.

Liberty Lake caters to 1,000 children a year, draws corporate and other groups as a weekend picnic venue, and, on the first two weekends in June, hosts the popular New Jersey Renaissance Faire, which draws thousands more.

Unfortunately for Pritikin, his life-and-death concerns have come up against similar desperation on the part of Mansfield officials - and things have turned testy.

The rural community's financial health is at risk if the warehouses aren't approved, Mayor Art Puglia says.

Since there are few businesses in the community of 8,500, it must rely for most of its tax revenue on struggling homeowners, Puglia said.

Last year, Mansfield was one of five Burlington County townships that went to voters seeking permission to exceed a state-imposed 2 percent cap on property-tax increases. When residents said no, the budget had to be cut.

The warehouses - a total of nearly two million square feet - could generate $1 million in taxes, Puglia said, helping mightily with the town's proposed $6.8 million budget.

The camp pays $24,000 a year in taxes, Pritikin says, and he understands the town's desire for more revenue. Still, he said, it is one of a few remaining private recreational camps in the state and is providing a service to working parents.

In recent years, the camp has struggled with flooding when Craft's Creek and the camp's freshwater lake overflow, he said. The warehouses and a parking lot would consume three million square feet of ground that he says is needed to sponge up rainwater.

Margolis did not return a call, but his engineers have said the project would not cause flooding.

As Pritikin recently led a tour of the camp, he stopped to wave to some children noisily preparing for a round of laser tag and others assembling to play soccer.

"This is a unique place," he said.

Pritikin said he knew the cornfield was zoned for commercial development when he purchased the camp site seven years ago. But he believed wetlands within the field would be an obstacle to development.

Like many rural communities, Mansfield is faced with the challenge of striking a balance between development and farmland and other open space. In the balance now is a green space used as a picnic venue since the 1950s and a summer camp since the '60s.

"They're putting the squeeze on me," Pritikin said of township officials.

After he gathered 1,500 signatures to ask the state Department of Environmental Protection to hold a hearing, a zoning officer cited him for failing to get a permit for the Renaissance Faire. He said he had sponsored the event at the camp site for two years without any problems.

The fair features costumed staff and medieval-themed shows, including jousting.

Weeks before that, Pritikin said, he was denied permission to host a circus.

Puglia said the town was just trying to protect itself. "If someone got hurt and we didn't do our inspections, we're liable," he said. He conceded Pritikin had not been cited before.

At a DEP hearing at the town hall late last month, more than 100 people came out to express concerns about the warehouse project and the future of the camp.

The DEP has virtually approved the project. It has also approved a bridge over marshland that would enable trucks to come through.

The agency was at the hearing to gather input on a wastewater-management plan mainly focused on a proposed sewage treatment plant in another part of town. But residents, camp employees, and parents of campgoers used it as an opportunity to question the warehouses.

Some suggested the project be reduced in size. Others expressed concerns about potential water pollution and the adverse effects on the Craft's Creek watershed.

Final approval from the township planning board is pending.

Phillip Brackin, a Mansfield resident who sends his four sons to the camp, said he was disappointed that officials who favor the project "don't understand the importance of a quality camp to the quality of life of young people in New Jersey. And, they underestimate the degradation of the environment that will be done by this project."

Barbara Lynn of Haddonfield said the camp was "a magical place" where she sends her two daughters.

If it were forced to close, she said, it would be "heartbreaking because I would love to see this camp survive for generations of kids to come. . . . It's like a throwback to the camps of my youth, where it's all outdoor activities and no computers."

Deputy Mayor Bob Higgins said he had to "rely upon our professionals who say the project won't cause increased flooding." He said he hopes the camp owner and warehouse owner can "sit down and find a way to be good neighbors."

Pritikin said the camp sits at a low point and gets water runoff from all directions. Hurricane Irene last year left a portion of it underwater, he said.

He worries that the diesel trucks that would rumble by his property would pollute the runoff, which in turn could taint the lake that children use for swimming, fishing, and boating.

Puglia dismisses Pritikin's concerns as "a lot of hype."

The mayor said the warehouse project calls for nine retention basins and underground piping to handle the runoff. He also said the location of the project was ideal - right next to exits off the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 295, a major corridor.

He is not without support in town.

A businessman who didn't want to be named said the township already has preserved acres of farmland and should bring in more commercial enterprises.

Some others would like to keep things the way they are.

Barbara McClain, a retired psychotherapist who has lived in Mansfield for a decade, was running errands when she was asked her opinion on the project.

"I'd like to keep the cornfields," she said. "It's one of the reasons I moved here. . . . I like low taxes, but I would rather see open land."


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz .

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