Fight to preserve Maple Ridge golf course as state park nearing victory

At Maple Ridge, Rich Dilks, chairman of the Wenonah Environmental Commission, ducks under a tree while on a hike with Christine Nolan, executive director of the South Jersey Land and Water Trust.
At Maple Ridge, Rich Dilks, chairman of the Wenonah Environmental Commission, ducks under a tree while on a hike with Christine Nolan, executive director of the South Jersey Land and Water Trust. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 13, 2014

Amid the commotion of 50,000 people carrying out their lives in Mantua, Deptford, and Wenonah, the towering trees and gentle flow of the Mantua Creek at the former Maple Ridge golf course offer welcome serenity.

A six-year fight to preserve those 112 acres is approaching victory, preservationists say, as the state appears poised to sign a contract with a Washington, developer to create Gloucester County's first state park.

State Department of Environmental Protection officials are using the working name "Tall Pines State Preserve," a nod to the former golf course's name before it became Ron Jaworski's Eagles Nest and then Maple Ridge. No name has been officially selected.

The site, on the Mantua-Deptford border, will join 35 other golf courses in the state preserved as open space. Some, such the Pitman Golf Course, remain operational as links.

Maple Ridge will be used for passive recreation, a DEP spokesman said. There will be no camping, athletic fields, or picnic huts.

That's just fine with Rich Dilks, 66, of Wenonah, who has helped lead the grassroots preservation effort and who says the space will give people a chance to learn about the natural world.

"It's really an oasis right in the middle of all of this heavy development," said Dilks, who says the property is home to 70 species of birds, including bald eagles and a very rare albino red-tailed hawk.

"That's what makes it so special," he said.

Dilks, chairman of the Wenonah Environmental Commission, and the Friends of Maple Ridge have raised nearly $150,000 to help fund the project, expected to cost more than $3 million.

Mantua is kicking in $100,000 - a "good deal" of what's left in a tree trust fund generated by developers who razed trees for projects, Mayor Pete Scirrotto said. The Frank H. Stewart Trust, which assists South Jersey counties in acquiring land for wildlife protection, awarded a $250,000 grant.

IBG Partners, which bought the property when the course closed in 2006, agreed to sell it after a downturn in the housing market and conflicting opinions with Deptford about its planned 140-house development, executive vice president Scott Fuller said. He called it an "aligning of the stars."

In the interim, nature has taken its course, with grasslands reclaiming the greens. But protecting the land has had its fair share of hurdles. Twice, referendums seeking to increase the open-space tax in Mantua to buy the land have been shot down.

More recently, Deptford Township's Planning Board was tasked with finding a way to fulfill its state affordable-housing requirements; more than a dozen units of the canceled development had been designated as affordable housing.

The board eventually devised a plan to buy two acres - a parking lot - from the developer for $1 to set aside for affordable housing. Last year, the state approved that plan, allowing the DEP's Green Acres program to apply funding to the preservation project.

"We're extremely gratified," Dilks said. "Since that's been done, it's just been a lot of minor things that have to get taken care of."

Christine Nolan, executive director of the South Jersey Land and Water Trust, a partner in the effort, said organizers overcame the unforeseen bumps with a unifying mantra: "This will be a park some day."

Under a proposed management plan, the county would oversee the site but Mantua would be charged with maintaining the property.

Scirrotto said cutting grass and tidying up wouldn't be a big deal, noting that housing would have added a burden to services such as trash collection and schools.

"It's a small price to pay for having that ground preserved," he said.

Freeholder Director Robert Damminger said the county still requires a public hearing before the purchase, and land surveys and environmental tests will be conducted before settlement, which he said could happen by late summer or early fall.

Gloucester County officials have long pledged to help preserve agricultural and farm spaces and, by extension, the county's identity. They've logged 19,500 acres of protected farmland and open space.

The county, which seeks state reimbursement for its preserved land, is working to acquire 1,000 acres per year.

Ken Atkinson, director of the Gloucester County Office of Land Preservation, said of Maple Ridge: "This is going to be pretty unique."

Although Maple Ridge hasn't been formally purchased, in practice it already has become a public haven of sorts. On a recent sunny afternoon, two young men from Deptford cast fishing lines into one of three ponds there, hoping to lure bass. They were there, they said, on a friend's recommendation.

One opined: "It's perfect."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917

@AJFichera

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|