Trying To Save 118 Acres In Middletown

June 12, 2018
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David Ham, owner of Pilgrim Farm Management, is the property manager for the farmland at the Mountain Hill property in Middletown. He’s petitioning the county and appealing to private investors to preserve farmland at the 118-acre property before it is sold to developers. Photo by Jay Cook

Farmland Manager Wants to Stop Development Project

By Jay Cook

MIDDLETOWN – From the street, the property at 376 Kings Highway East doesn’t look like much. The house there is in need of a coat of paint and a firewood for-sale sign is the only visible marker along the road.

But a sloped, gravel driveway opens up to a sprawling farm on about 76 acres that’s almost entirely isolated from its commercial and residential neighbors. It’s where David Ham, the property manager and owner of Pilgrim Farm Management, makes a living by processing wood and lumber for resale as organic topsoil and mulches.

That farm is more than half of the entire Mountain Hill tract, a 118-acre property owned by the Azzolina and Scaduto families stretching from Kings Highway East to Kanes Lane along Route 35. Possible development there has been discussed for nearly two decades and recently it’s been one of Middletown’s most contentious topics. Prospective developers hope to acquire the land and build but some residents are pushing back to limit the development.

Ham, on the other hand, is aiming for preservation. He envisions a preserved farm thriving while supporting a retail and wholesale organic produce agribusiness.

“You can’t make this,” Ham, 61, said about the farm last weekend. “You can’t produce it, you can’t reproduce it. It is what it is, a gift from the man upstairs.”

Ham formally addressed his concerns Tuesday evening during a brief presentation to the Monmouth County Agriculture Development Board at its monthly meeting. He petitioned board members to entertain a “recommendation for preservation based on historical and agricultural significance of the soils.”

“This is the history of this town,” he said. “If we let this one go, we’ve really done something wrong.”

A piece of the 70-plus acres of farmland David Ham oversees in his role as property manager at the Mountain Hill property. The farm once provided produce to a dozen local Foodtown stores. Photo by Jay Cook

There’s A Farm Back There?

A barn greets visitors at the front of the property, but dozens of work trucks, working farm equipment and even an old sailboat are strewn across the entrance beside a cabin said to date back 150 years.

Ham officially became the property manager in 1996 after spending 15 years managing private farms around New Jersey. Ham oversaw farming in Holmdel and Colts Neck, worked in eight other counties and also focused on environmental remediation.

He estimates that 56 to 70 acres of the total 118 acres contain prime soil for crops. Southern exposure from the sun warms the rich marl soil there to make for a distinctive farming experience, Ham said.

That was confirmed by William Sciarappa, a department head for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Monmouth County, an arm of Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. He authored a letter in 2000 detailing the farm at 376 Kings Highway East and noted “the current and future importance of preserving such valuable land for the production of food, feed and fuel (wood pellets).” In the letter, Sciarappa said the Class I soils there help filter storm water for irrigation and are important to Middletown because it receives up to 50 inches of rainfall a year. Those soils “are very hard to come by in the state as well as national and globally.” When reached by email on Monday, Sciarappa reaffirmed his position and said the farm is unique to Middletown. Ham has plans to plant about 26 acres of sweet corn when the ground dries up from recent high rain volumes. He also farms melons, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplant and squash there. Much of the produce from that farm formerly supplied about 12 Foodtown stores in the past, some of which are owned by the same families that own the Mountain Hill property.

“This place is an island, but it’s a productive island,” said Ham.

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Stopping Development

Ham recently became involved in Minding Middletown, a grassroots citizens organization fighting the proposed development on those 118 acres. National Realty & Development Corp. (NRDC) has been before the township’s planning board in the past year to develop a proposed 340,000-square-foot shopping center on 54 acres along Route 35 with a Wegmans Food Market and a CMX Cinema movie theater. Toll Brothers had also applied to build 280 market-rate townhomes plus 70 affordable units but has rescinded that plan.

The township committee became involved in December when they approved a redevelopment investigation for the total 118 acres and other nearby lots. Township officials and a redevelopment firm are working on a site plan for the property which will be unveiled later this summer. The entire plot is now in a PD, or planned development, zone but much of it is tax assessed as a qualified farm.

“It’s all about stopping this NRDC (project),” said Ham. “People in town are adamantly against any development on this property.”

He’s in a tricky situation, though. Ham operates the property for Mountain Hill, the same group looking to sell the property.

But Ham says there are financial backers in the Hartshorne Woods section of Middletown who want to see the property stay as a farm and are willing to privately finance a purchase. He declined to disclose who they might be.

The price tag? He believes it’s anywhere from $13 million to $20 million, “which really isn’t big numbers, especially when you talk about something you can’t replace.”

What Can Be Done?

Ham, a second-generation farmer originally from Englishtown, views the farm as an essential piece of Middletown. If a private purchase was completed, he proposes to expand the current farming scope to be a training ground for local youth, special needs students and college graduates.

He envisions the property supporting an organic agribusiness with produce farmed straight from the land tied into a wholesale and retail operation. Other farmers from Monmouth County would be welcome to sell produce there as well, he said.

But “hurdles” do exist, according to Harriet Honigfeld, a principal planner with the Monmouth County Division of Planning. The property is not in a county agricultural development area and an agricultural use isn’t prioritized there through Middletown’s master plan, she said.

“Formal farmland preservation programs may not be a match,” said Honigfeld, “but that isn’t to say we wouldn’t be a resource and a help to some kind of other preservation option.”

Monmouth Conservation Foundation executive director Bill Kastning said at the meeting his board of trustees is in favor of preserving the farm portion if the 54-acre commercial complex on highway frontage is to be developed.

Kastning also confirmed a private investor is in the mix.

“There’s very few farms in Middletown and therefore it behooves us to consider this because there’s not much left,” he said.

The county agriculture development board didn’t outright support a preservation effort there but did agree to investigate it further with more information from Ham and Kastning.

This article was first published in the June 7-14, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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