To Save a Vanishing View—Land&People

My introduction to Bray’s Hill Preserve was at dusk in the dead of December, in a field shorn of flowers and bereft of butterflies, defined by the shadows of a skeletal tree line. Not, you would say, nature’s finest moment.

And yet I was transported. While a pair of who-whooting great horned owls boxed the meadow, the waves of purple sweeping the gentle swells washed me back to the winter nights of my dairy-farm childhood. Bray’s Hill, I would learn, is a time machine.

Clinton Township nestles in the rolling hills of western New Jersey; the lights twinkling on the horizon are across the Delaware River. For generations the region was rural, remote from the population pressures of the New York metropolis. But with Interstate 78 bisecting the township and LANs and WANs making remote offices as close as the next cubicle, the barrier of distance has been broken; increasingly, this agrarian patchwork of woods and pasture is sprouting office parks and townhouse villages.

As darkness falls, the demarcation between field and hedgerow blurs, and both, as though drawn by M. C. Escher, gently morph into the woodland beyond. I am reminded that if allowed, the encroaching brambles I pushed through would gladly take over the meadow I entered. “Mow ’em or lose ’em” is the farmer’s creed; open space is at risk from the day it is created.

The fields on Bray’s Hill have been mown and sown since colonial times. Daniel Bray risked all by gathering and hiding the Durham longboats that carried George Washington across the Delaware on Christmas Eve of 1776. Bray’s sons operated a tannery, a distillery, and a farm in the vicinity. The Bray Homestead, built in 1810 and now on the National Register of Historic Places, sits just down the road.

Most local people thought the Bray’s Hill land would remain open forever. Paradoxically, preservation seemed assured when the Exxon Corporation developed nearby land for a massive corporate research center. The company purchased surrounding farms–including Bray’s Hill–to provide a buffer and ensure privacy.

But times and corporate culture changed, and in the late 1980s Exxon hired consultants to review its open space holdings–some 850 acres–to determine their “highest and best use.”

“And it wasn’t as cornfields,” Cathy Sipe reports. Sipe lives in a quarrystone house once part of the farmstead. “By the time we learned the land was at risk,” she says, “three separate builders were bidding on it.” One plan called for the ninety-five-acre farm to be packed with 190 townhouse units.

That the view on Bray’s Hill today is of wild turkey and whitetail deer, not backhoes and bulldozers, is the result of a unique wedding of state and township preservation programs, with the Trust for Public Land in the role of matchmaker.

A Race Against Time

Taxes are a volatile issue in New Jersey. Governor Christine Whitman rode to office in 1993 on a pledge to cut state taxes, then nearly lost four years later because of the burden her cuts had placed on local budgets. This was no time to propose raising taxes, but time was running out for the preservation of Clinton Township’s open space heritage. In 1994 the township council asked voters to approve an open space tax of two cents per $100 of assessed property value. They did. Two years later townspeople returned to the polls and added another three cents to their open space levy.

“This really is a quality-of-life issue,” says Mayor Michael VanTassel, who moved to the township in 1979. “People move here for the hills and reservoirs, the corn and the cows, and we want to preserve that.”

For the town of 14,000, it is also a fiscal issue. Farmland doesn’t require much in the way of police protection, and calves don’t go to school. A 1,100-home development proposed for one farm alone would increase the population of Clinton by a third. “We’ll have to build a sewage treatment plant and a new school just to serve that development,” VanTassel notes.

An Open Space Committee was created to identify and prioritize property worthy of preservation. Cathy Sipe, as chair of the town’s Historic Commission, was a charter member. “Within a year,” she says, “we had a wish list of twenty-two sites, ranging from 11 to 249 acres.” At an ad valorem of two cents, Clinton was raising about $250,000 a year. At five cents, it will raise more than $600,000 annually. Exxon was offering the Bray’s Hill property alone for $1.6 million, and the town had identified another 1,000 acres in need of protection. Clearly, something more was needed.

A Legacy of Conservation

New Jersey has a history of saving natural lands. The state’s Green Acres program, funded by nine separate bond acts over nearly four decades, has preserved more than 430,000 acres of farmland and open space. In 1995, about the same time voters in Clinton were establishing their open space levy, voters across the state were adding another $350 million to the kitty.

“With towns like Clinton creating their own open space funds,” says Kevin Richardson, the state’s planner for the Green Acres Program, “we saw a partnership opportunity that could leverage both of our funds.” The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which runs Green Acres, created the Planning Incentive Program (PIP). Counties and towns that had a dedicated tax and an open space plan could apply for state funding. They’d get a 25 percent grant and a low-interest loan for the balance. Towns could buy threatened land immediately, using their open space fund to pay back the loan. Green Acres turned three-quarters of its monies into a perpetual revolving fund.

But small towns like Clinton, with its part-time mayor and per-diem attorney, are ill equipped to manage the funding process, let alone negotiate million-dollar land deals with the likes of Exxon. “Clinton just doesn’t have the necessary staff or expertise,” says Barbara Vogel, chair of the open space committee.

Enter the Trust for Public Land. With its national Green Cities Initiative directed at helping fast-urbanizing communities save land–and a long history of working with New Jersey on Green Acres projects–TPL is in a unique position to help towns work through their funding challenges. “TPL not only handled the always intensive negotiations with Exxon,” says Vogel, “but they helped with leveraging the money we needed from the state.”

“We’ve created a menu of services for New Jersey municipalities,” says John Klevins, project manager in TPL’s New Jersey Field Office. “It includes helping set acquisition priorities, analyzing funding sources for ways to leverage local monies, negotiating with the landowner, and shepherding the transaction to closing. This is what’s really special about New Jersey,” Klevins adds. “With so many ways to leverage funding, we’re able to create the big pots of money needed to handle large projects.”

Like Walking Through Time

“When we first contacted TPL,” Cathy Sipe notes, “we needed help sorting out our wish list.” The Bray’s Hill property, by then actively on the market, was an obvious priority. TPL field biologist Peter Blanchard was asked to evaluate the land’s ecological significance.

“Walking Bray’s Hill,” Blanchard says, “is like walking through time.” The red cedar and flowering dogwood tell you that the glade next to Cathy Sipe’s house was open field just a few years back. It is but one of many blocks of old fields reverting to woods, each at a different stage. The overgrown tangle of weeping willow, horsechestnut, and privet at the heart of the property date the demise of the farmstead–a disastrous fire in the 1930s consumed the farmer’s house and barns and much of his herd. A shelf cut into the central limestone ridge is raw testimony to colonial-era quarrying that continued into the 1800s, and just below the ridge survives a spot of older growth: red, white, black, and pin oak; shagbark hickory and pignut hickory, with a carpet of fern.

Blanchard prepared a slide show that showcased the property’s physical beauty while explaining its ecological value, and the township quickly made preservation of Bray’s Hill its first priority. Environmentally sensitive, rich in recreational opportunities, and–occupying watershed land less than a mile from Round Valley Reservoir–providing critical groundwater protection, Bray’s Hill “exemplifies what Green Acres seeks to preserve,” says Kevin Richardson. Clinton Township would become the first locality to receive PIP funding. But making it happen, Richardson notes, “was a learning process for everyone.”

TPL was given the dual task of negotiating a purchase price with Exxon and securing PIP funding from the state. There was a lot to learn. TPL “cut through a morass of paperwork,” Richardson says, to obtain $1 million in Green Acres money and to facilitate what turned out to be a bargain sale–the purchase price was below market value–for Bray’s Hill. And, notes TPL’s Klevins with pride, it was done in record time–one year, start to finish.

The Challenge: Protecting More Land

The old farm’s tree line was framed in the window of Clinton township’s third-floor meeting room last November, as creation of the Bray’s Hill Preserve was formally announced. New Jersey DEP Commissioner Robert Shinn praised local residents “clearly committed to preserving open space and protecting the environment,” and declared that their early approval of an open space tax exemplified a positive trend. Shinn noted that even as the town and state were working to protect Bray’s Hill, voters in nineteen other localities had approved new taxes to pay for open space preservation and farmland protection.

To date, thirteen New Jersey counties and fifty-three municipalities have approved open space taxes. TPL is already working with many of them. “Each of these open space trusts represents a successful campaign to win voter approval, and that’s not easy,” says TPL’s John Klevins. “But each victory means the potential for state support. So the rewards are great.” This spring, with PIP funding, the Trust closed Hillsborough Township’s top open space priority and is negotiating for parcels totaling 1,430 acres for the town of Colts Neck. Ocean County is using TPL’s Century Plan–a study of one hundred unique conservation sites in New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay watershed–as its basis for setting preservation priorities, and last year the Trust was able to help build support for passage of Ocean County’s new open space levy. The tax will raise nearly $4 million annually to help offset watershed development pressures. Recognizing the broad popular support for open space preservation, Governor Whitman has proposed $50 million in new state funds to match monies raised through local referenda.

Managing a New Preserve

Clinton has set Bray’s Hill Preserve aside for low-impact recreation: hiking, birding, cross-country skiing, and natural history education. But how to manage the property? One option is to do nothing. Succession, the process of change in the composition of an ecosystem, is natural, after all. It is also cheap. Keeping meadows open takes time and money; allowing the land to revert to forest is tempting in many ways.

“That would be a big mistake,” Peter Blanchard says. “The land would lose its visual excitement; diversity would be cut significantly.” The weave of wood and field is not only biologically rich, it is becoming increasingly rare. Blanchard is persuasive, and for now, at least, Clinton plans to keep the Bray’s Hill meadows open.

Many of the townspeople who will pay for Bray’s Hill will never set foot in the preserve. For them, just knowing it is there is reward enough. For those who do visit, Bray’s Hill offers many views. Barbara Vogel revels in “the 360s,” places where your eye can sweep the horizon and see no wires, no roads, no sign of modern man. “You can surround yourself with nature there,” she says. “You can really wallow in it.”

On a recent visit, my eye is drawn to the hedgerow–a stepping-off point for pioneer species, the front line of natural succession. This is a double-edged forest, one tree deep; vibrant, dynamic, a constant threat to the meadow it contains. I recall, growing up, that when haying a field, we’d bale a haylot’s perimeter swath separately; infiltrated with baby bramble, sumac, and cedar, its only use was as bedding.

But where I see tension, Peter Blanchard sees protection. “The open field,” he explains, “is a drastic setting.” The hedgerow provides shade. It moderates temperature and humidity, breaks the wind. And it provides cover. For the red fox, at risk crossing an open field, the hedgerow is like a covered bridge, Blanchard says.

Blanchard’s official work on Bray’s Hill is done, but still he returns, now with canvas and easel, charcoal and pastel. “It’s a way,” he says, “to immerse oneself in the land, to let it flow into you.” Blanchard sketches a classic view–meadow framed by woods, whitetail browsing at the edge. But more magical, he says, is to look from the woods into the open fields, “the way Native Americans would have seen it.” It is an endangered perspective, he adds, which makes the preservation of Bray’s Hill all the more meaningful.

Land & People, 1998

Richard Stapleton writes frequently on environmental and conservation issues.