At former Rowan estate, open space, open questions

Burlington County, which acquired the farmstead in 2007 for $4.5 million, plans to donate it to Westampton.
Burlington County, which acquired the farmstead in 2007 for $4.5 million, plans to donate it to Westampton. (CURT HUDSON / Staff Photographer)

Westampton aims to clear up confusion on possible use.

Posted: June 02, 2014

Stroll the former Henry Rowan estate off Bridge Street in Westampton, and you may well appreciate why the prominent industrialist once chose to live on its 83 rustic acres.

Its stately brick mansion dates to 1786, and its several brooks meander through woods and alongside farm fields that run for 1,000 feet along the scenic Rancocas Creek.

Yet some see it as the perfect spot for ball fields, bleachers, overhead lights, hot dog stands, and parking lots.

Which will it be?

On Thursday, Burlington County will hold the second of two hearings on its plan to donate to the town of Westampton the former Rowan farmstead, which it acquired in 2007 for $4.5 million.

The hearing is scheduled to start 7 p.m. at the County Administration Building in Mount Holly.

While the legal notice announcing the hearing says Westampton has sought title to the farmstead "for the purpose of constructing additional active recreational fields," Mayor Carolyn Chang said that language had sown much confusion among residents about the township's plans.

"It is our intention to add the property to the township's open space," Chang said last week. "But we have no plans in place for what we intend to do with it."

Township Manager Donna Ryan agrees. "A future [township] committee might decide they want ball fields, or that they don't want to do anything" to change it, she said. "It's not something that's been at all decided."

Chang and Ryan said, however, that the town wanted the option of one day converting some of the Rowan acreage from "passive" to "active" recreation, hence the hearing.

Manning Smith of Moorestown, a grandson of Henry Rowan who formerly owned the farm, said last week that he and his grandparents wanted very much for the property to be preserved in its natural state.

"We're certainly not against ball fields," he said, "but it was never my grandfather's intention that this beautiful property, which is of such a rare size and with a historic home, would be turned into a bunch of ball fields when there are so many other places in the area."

The 90-year-old Rowan, whose donation of $100 million lent his name to Rowan University, could have earned much more than he received from the property had he sold it for residential development, Miller said, "but he really likes open space."

Although school groups and nature centers may tour the farmstead, a chain blocks the main drive, and a "no trespassing" sign posted by the county Parks Department threatens "prosecution" for unauthorized visitors.

'The map'

The township's true intentions have become a topic of lively debate in the township thanks largely to a broad sheet of paper known informally as "the map."

Professionally drawn, but with no date or legend indicating its authorship, "the map" shows what the property might look like if converted to ball fields.

Presented at a hearing at Town Hall last Thursday, it depicts two parking areas, four baseball fields, three softball fields, batting cages, concession stands, restrooms, and offices. Gone is the 1786 manor house, which appears to have been replaced by a parking lot.

Talk of converting at least some of the site to turf fields "goes back three years," Ryan said, to when the town was approached by a firm based in Cooperstown, N.Y., that promotes creation of community baseball teams, fields, and tournaments.

"They told us the property would be ideal," Ryan said, and they sketched a hand-drawn site plan showing possible placement of facilities.

Despite "a lot of interest" on the part of some residents, talk of converting the site "didn't go anywhere," according to Ryan. Then, late last year, several residents expressed interest in reviving it.

Ryan said she and they then approached the county's Parks and Recreation office about the township's taking possession of the Rowan property. When the county proved receptive, they commissioned a redrawing of the original sketch with a professional site plan.

"The county told us they thought it might be a good idea," Ryan said. "Basically, they said, 'If we give it [the property] to you as Green Acres space, you could do some development or leave it as open space.'

"But we also pointed out it would also give us access to the [Rancocas] Creek, which we don't have right now.' "

Despite the drawing's public unveiling at last Thursday's hearing, "We were never secretive about it," Ryan said.

Michael Hanrahan, senior associate at the Trenton architectural firm of Clarke, Caton, Hintz, who created the site plan, did not return a request Friday for comment.

'A potential'

Eric Arpert, spokesman for Burlington County, last week said the county's plan to sell the Rowan property to Westampton for a token $10 was "not contingent" on its being converted to ball fields.

But the county hearings are required, he said, because "there's at least a potential that Westampton may want to change use on a portion of the land.

"It's more a reflection of what might happen, not something that's already agreed," Arpert said. "We're not in business of telling townships what they should do."

Rose Magrann, head of Westampton Friends School, which abuts the Rowan site, said students had been using it for years for nature hikes.

"It's a huge program for us," Magrann said. "Students take full advantage. We'd really like it to stay the way it is."

Chang, now in her second term as mayor, was emphatic that the township committee had made no determination for the use of the property if the town acquires it.

Representatives of Westampton's senior population have proposed making the manor house a senior center, the mayor said.

And Chang, who grew up on the island of Jamaica, "far away from sidewalks and concrete," said she "loves the idea of walking trails and access to the streams" that run through the property.

"If we want to spend one penny of public money, we're going to have public meetings. So everybody will get an opportunity" to offer an opinion.

Anyone who believes the township committee has its mind made up, Chang said, "is jumping the gun."

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