Conservancy is one man's magnificent obsession

McNeil has transformed the landscape using inexpensive and sustainable methods. "There's nothing like this in New Jersey," he says.
McNeil has transformed the landscape using inexpensive and sustainable methods. "There's nothing like this in New Jersey," he says.
Posted: November 21, 2013

'I like the idea of being a curator of the land." Henry "Hank" McNeil smiles, slowing the Land Rover so we can appreciate yet another pristine view.

Within his private Winslow Farms Conservancy - 807 rolling, undulating, exquisite acres in rural Camden County - the landscape is dramatic, the scenery surprising.

"There's nothing like this in New Jersey," McNeil says. "Probably nothing like this in the country."

With expert help, the Philadelphia philanthropist has transformed what had been an abused and unsightly landscape into a thing of beauty, using innovative, inexpensive, and sustainable methods and materials.

"What I tried to do," he later tells me in an e-mail, "was to create a revolutionary environmental paradigm that anyone could follow in reclaiming a degraded piece of land . . . at an affordable cost."

An environment that is at once natural, reclaimed, and artfully arranged, the Winslow Farms Conservancy has elements of an arboretum, organic farm, garden, and park.

Winding paths, unusual perspectives, and distant vistas beckon; I would so love to get lost there.

McNeil's guests "just don't know where [they] are," he observes, accurately. "They tell me that all the time."

I'd heard stories about the place but hadn't set foot in it until Monday, when I tagged along as the quietly colorful owner gave county and local officials a tour.

An art collector and pharmaceutical heir (think Tylenol), McNeil bought the heart of the conservancy - an abandoned clay quarry on Fleming Pike in Winslow Township - for $180,000 in 1994. Later, he added contiguous or adjacent parcels, including one along the White Horse Pike.

McNeil says he was approached during the last year by representatives of the state and township, along with private entities, seeking to buy parts of the site.

Camden County also is exploring the possibility of acquiring the site, Freeholder Jeff Nash says, adding, "It would be a magnificent addition to the county park system."

Not bad, considering the conservancy - which is not generally open to the public - once was where local kids went to party and stolen cars went to die.

"We called it 'the pits,' " recalls Mayor Barry M. Wright, a former township police chief.

In the '90s, a company "wanted to build 700 homes here," the mayor adds, as we overlook a tasteful array of waterways rippling slate-blue under the breezy autumnal sun.

"Have you seen anywhere else like this in Camden County?" Wright asks.

Honestly: No.

McNeil worked with the esteemed landscape designer (and Philadelphia native) Martha Schwartz to reshape waterways, remove invasive species, and reconstitute clay soils using wood chips from felled trees.

Pitch pines were pruned or removed to highlight clusters or single trees, like pieces of sculpture. Plump 10-foot cedars were planted in clever, even whimsical, patterns in the meadows.

Sections of old telephone poles have been repurposed as fences. And two large lakes were cleared of trash and now offer excellent bass fishing.

"It's extraordinary," says Peter Fontaine, a lawyer who helped establish Camden County's open space preservation program.

Open space funds and other moneys, public as well as private, likely would be needed to underwrite a county acquisition, says Nash.

"It has to happen," he adds.

I, too, would love to see the gated conservancy become a public park. But its curator/creator has a number of concerns, such as continuing field trials for retrievers on the site.

McNeil, who describes himself as of "semiretired" age, has a paternal interest in the conservancy as well.

"It's my baby," he says. "I probably won't do anything like this again."

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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