N.J. in landmark deal to acquire 1,400 acres of premium open space

(Governor Phil Murphy and New Jersey DEP Twitter)

(Governor Phil Murphy and New Jersey DEP Twitter)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

In a huge victory for conservationists, the state has entered into a deal to acquire nearly 1,400 acres of what may be the last most biologically diverse undeveloped land in New Jersey, a haven to threatened species like Pine Barren tree frogs and at least seven rare plants.

The acquisition of the Holly Farm tract from Atlantic City Electric caps a more than two-decade-old fight to buy the property by the state’s Green Acres program. The purchase of the land — between two federally designated national Wild and Scenic Rivers — will connect previously set-aside lands acquired by the Nature Conservancy to expand the Menantico Ponds Wildlife Management Area by 5,500 acres.

The deal, not yet finalized so purchase terms remain undisclosed, is the latest twist in long negotiations to preserve Holly Farm, a place where the cultivation of holly trees earned Millville in Cumberland County the nickname of the Holly City. In the past, the state Department of Environmental Protection had offered as much as $3.5 million for the property.

The acquisition almost never happened. Back in 2010, under urging from the Christie administration, the state Board of Public Utilities  narrowly authorized the sale of the tract to a developer who wanted to put a golf course and senior housing on the site. But the market for senior housing collapsed in the area, and the developer never won approval for a key environmental permit to develop the site.

Critically important

“Safeguarding New Jersey’s interconnected open spaces and diverse ecosystem is critically important to protecting our environment,’’ Gov. Phil Murphy said in a press statement announcing the deal. “Through the acquisition of Holly Farm, we are able to preserve New Jersey’s natural resources and become more resilient to the devastating effects of climate change.’’

The two-square mile tract was described by Tom Wells, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy, as a crown jewel and missing piece of New Jersey’s open space system. “This is one of the most important land preservations in many years,’’ said Wells, a former director of the DEP’s Green Acres programs. And one of the largest acquisitions, according to environmentalists.

The state first offered to buy the tract in 1999, initially offering $2.6 million, later upped to $3.5 million. The area is surrounded by 27,000 acres of mostly pristine forest and wetlands, already acquired by the state or the Nature Conservancy.

It is home to seven rare plants, including the sensitive jointvetch, a federally and globally protected species, which typically occurs at outer marshes and shores. Other species found at the site include the bald eagle, timber rattlesnakes, and red-headed woodpeckers.

“This is a fantastic day for the environment for New Jersey,’’ said Ed Lloyd, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Columbia University. “After three decades of negotiations, we want to commend Atlantic City Electric and the DEP for preserving this gem.’’

“This is tremendous news for the people and animals that call New Jersey home,’’ added Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.