Story and Photos by Joseph Sapia
COLTS NECK – Entertainer Jon Stewart and his wife are looking to turn the historic Hockhockson Farm on Route 537 into a working farm and related sanctuary-educational center.
The couple is teaming with the New York State-based Farm Sanctuary organization to rescue abused farm animals and care for them, raise and sell crops, renovate an existing building into a visitors center and construct a new building for an agricultural education center on the 45-acre site, according to paperwork on file in the township planning office.
Jon and Tracey Stewart’s entity, the JTS Land Trust, is the contract purchaser of the Hockhockson Farm, owned by Robert Cooke III, who lives on the property. The farm, between Laird and Swimming River roads, is easily identifiable by its sign on Route 537: “Hockhockson Farm, A.D. 1780,” with silhouettes of seven running horses.
An early step in the process is JTS Land Trust and Hockhockson Farm’s scheduled appearance Tuesday, April 5, before the Monmouth County Agriculture Development Board. There, they will seek the board identifying the application as a commercial farm and protection under the state Right to Farm Act.
Hockhockson Farm is in an agriculture zone, which does not allow for a visitor’s center or education center, said Timothy Anfuso, the township planner. But he said there are two routes to overcome that – either seek a variance from the town or seek the declaration from the Agriculture Development Board.
If approved by the Agriculture Development Board, the application could proceed to the township Planning Board for site plan approval. It is unclear if any variance would be needed because JTS has proposed something only in concept, rather than a detailed plan, Anfuso said.
“I believe the overall concept of the farm sanctuary advances the agricultural and rural goals of the township,” Anfuso wrote in a March 18 letter to Township Administrator Kathleen M. Capristo.
But Anfuso also raised various concerns:
- That an Agriculture Development Board approval could be given for the visitor and education centers without seeing actual plans. “I believe the size, intensity and scope of these activities must be determined at this stage,” according to Anfuso’s letter. “Once Right to Farm protection has been granted, it will be too late to control the size of these facilities as part of the Planning Board approval.”
- If the Agriculture Development Board approves the application, it will be protecting sanctuary activities via another entity – Robert Laurino, who farms the property and whose farm income is included in the application. In New Jersey, a commercial farm has to show proper income.
Anfuso also raises a concern about a movie/TV studio being located on the property – something that had been talked about, but apparently is no longer in the plans.
“I am concerned with a potential long-term code enforcement issue and believe that this studio be specifically excluded in the SSAMA,” or Site Specific Agricultural Management Practice being considered by the Agriculture Development Board.
The file in the township planning office shows correspondence on the matter going back to early November, when Farm Sanctuary contacted the planning office. Anfuso said he met with Jon Stewart at Town Hall around late November or early December.
Hockhockson Farm includes three houses and 12 outbuildings, including barns. All the buildings are to be used in the farm operation. The farm is now used to grow vegetables and flowers, along with boarding horses.
Of the 45 acres, 11 acres are now used for the vegetables and flowers. Under the proposal, another 4 acres would be used, totaling 15 acres, to grow crops – which would feed the sanctuary’s animals and be sold to the public at the existing farmstand.
The plan is for Laurino to continue farming the property, according to the application.
Anticipated living at the farm would be four to six cows, two to four pigs, six to 10 sheep, six to 10 goats, two to four horses and up to 50 chickens.
“Abused farm animals rescued from slaughter houses, kill piles, live markets and roadsides would be housed and rehabilitated at the farm,” according to the applicant’s paperwork. “The animals would live out their natural lives experiencing individual care and compassion by a licensed veterinarian.”
Representatives of the sanctuary would be on hand to explain to the public “the proper care and compassionate treatment of farm animals,” according to the applicant.
Depending on the season, 15 to 20 caregivers, guides or educators would be on the property, with four to six caregivers and property managers living on the site, according to the application. It says visitors could reach about 50 during the week and up to 100 on weekends.
The farm also is to devise school curriculum for sustainable agriculture and related practices. The farm also would focus on animal care, healthy diets, cooking with fresh produce, sustainable practices to enhance crop productivity while limiting impact on natural resources, according to the application.
“Applicant hopes to impress upon its visitors the care, expertise, and hard work that goes into the food they consume,” according to the application. “Applicant wants its visitors and customers to know that food does not just arrive on trucks ready for consumption.”
Tracey Stewart, 48, has a passion for helping animals. A veterinary technician, she is the author of the book, “Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live and How We Can Make Their Lives Better.”
Harry Lynch, Farm Sanctuary’s executive director, was traveling and unavailable for comment. He referred a reporter to Tracey Stewart. A message was left for her, but she could not be reached for comment.
Jon Stewart, 53, is a comic, writer, producer and actor. He formerly hosted “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central television.
The Stewarts, who live in Red Bank, have a farm sanctuary in Middletown Township.
The Agriculture Development Board is to hear the application at 7:30 p.m. at the county Agricultural Building, 4000 Kozloski Road, Freehold Township.
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