South Branch Headwaters Property Diverted From Development

In the heart of the New Jersey Highlands, a 134-acre complex of hydrologically critical land has been protected from development, The Trust for Public Land and The Land Conservancy of New Jersey announced today. The Highlands are the primary drinking water source for half of New Jersey’s residents.

A portion of this Mount Olive Township property was slated for development of 16 single-family homes. These residential building lots were approved prior to the enactment of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act. Over the past year The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national conservation organization, negotiated with the landowner, and in July 2009 TPL agreed to a $2.65 million option to purchase the property. TPL subsequently engaged The Land Conservancy of New Jersey to own, restore, and manage the land as a watershed resource.

“Conservation of drinking water sources is paramount to keeping New Jersey’s citizens healthy,” said Anthony Cucchi, New Jersey state director for TPL. “This land in the South Branch Raritan River headwaters was nearly lost to development, and we are grateful to our partners for working diligently together to meet this conservation challenge and protect and restore this important Highlands resource.”

The property includes a complex network of streams that feed into the headwaters of the South Branch of the Raritan River, a drinking water source for 1 million New Jersey residents. Unfortunately, with the development approval, the hydrology of the property was altered with installation of a road, several stream crossings, detention basins, and footings for an arch bridge. The Land Conservancy of New Jersey will implement a plan to remove the crossings and detention basins, and restore stream channels—and subsequent hydrology#151;to their natural state.

“The Land Conservancy of New Jersey is excited to have the opportunity to restore the disturbed streams and stop the erosion that has plagued this beautiful property so that it can once again provide clean drinking water for the residents of New Jersey,” said Conservancy President David Epstein.

TPL assembled funding for the $2.65 million purchase from a variety of sources, including more than 81 percent from Morris County. The Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders awarded $1.65 million from the open space portion of the County Preservation Trust Fund; Morris County Municipal Utilities Authority contributed $500,000; $460,000 came from two New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres Program grants, including a $250,000 contribution of Green Acres Funding from Mount Olive Township’s Planning Incentive Funds; and the Johanette Wallerstein Institute awarded $40,000 for the purchase.

“Here is further demonstration of Morris County’s two decades of preservation leadership, as we continue to help protect more critical water supply lands for the benefit of our residents. It all contributes to our high quality of life, so important to the Freeholders,” said Morris County Freeholder Jack Schrier, liaison to the county’s Preservation Trust Fund programs.

“This project, in the important Highlands region, offers the type of protections we need for our natural lands and wildlife habitats,” said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin. “It also compliments the DEP’s core mission of safeguarding our water supply. Preserving and protecting our water supply is a priority for this agency.”

“The construction project had damaged neighboring properties. The Trust for Public Land took the initiative in making the project happen, and The Land Conservancy of New Jersey will be a good steward in returning the property to a natural state. The public will get the benefit of enjoying the property,” said Mount Olive Township Mayor David M. Scapicchio.

The acquisition will include a contribution from TPL and the landowner of more than $100,000 to partially cover the cost of stream restoration and soil stabilization on the site. The Land Conservancy of New Jersey is raising additional funds to reforest portions of the property and implement a comprehensive management and restoration plan for the property.

“We are grateful to The Land Conservancy of New Jersey for their commitment to stewarding and improving this critical drinking water resource, and to the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Mount Olive Township Mayor and Council, the Municipal Utilities Authority, the Wallerstein Institute, and New Jersey’s state Green Acres program, without which this opportunity would have been lost,” said Terrence Nolan, TPL Senior Project Manager.

An effort is underway by The Land Conservancy of New Jersey and its conservation partners, know as the South Branch Preservation Partnership, to preserve an additional 500 acres adjacent to the South Branch Headwaters property.

The South Branch Preservation Partnership includes the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, Morris County Municipal Utility Authority, Mount Olive Township, South Branch Watershed Association, Trout Unlimited, and The Land Conservancy of New Jersey. The Partnership is currently pursuing conservation of four nearby properties that will be owned by The Land Conservancy of New Jersey in partnership with the New Jersey Water Supply Authority and Mount Olive Township, and managed as wildlife habitat and for protection of the quality of water in the South Branch of the Raritan River. In addition to its value as a source of potable water, anglers particularly value the Raritan River for trout fishing. State biologists also value the land that has been preserved, as well as almost all of the acreage above the South Branch, as important wood turtle habitat.

“This property is in the headwaters of the South Branch, so protecting and preserving this 134-acre parcel has a direct, positive impact on water quality in the entire 276-square-mile watershed,” said Bill Kibler, Executive Director of the South Branch Watershed Association. “It’s often said that ‘we all live downstream.’ Over a million New Jerseyans effectively live downstream of this property because they rely on the South Branch for clean drinking water for their families.”

The Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit land conservation organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, and natural areas, ensuring livable communities for generations to come. Since 1972, TPL has helped protect nearly 3 million acres nationwide, including more than 24,000 acres in New Jersey. TPL depends on the support of individuals, corporations, and foundations.