By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – Monmouth County’s 665 square miles always seems to be in a state of change from the shore to the rolling green pastures of Colts Neck horse farms and bustling urban areas of Red Bank, Long Branch and Asbury Park.
While life in the county has certainly changed since 1977, with a population now at more than 630,380, the Monmouth Conservation Foundation is celebrating its 35th anniversary of working to preserve the quality of life here.
“It’s about the environment that your children are going to be raised in,” said William Marraccini, president of the foundation’s board of trustees, about the organization’s role in preserving land throughout the county for more than three decades.
“It’s about planning for the future and to change things for the future for the better,” said William Kastning, the organization’s executive director.
In honor of its anniversary, the foundation will be holding its annual fundraising gala on Saturday, Sept. 22, at Fairway Farm, Cooper Road, Middletown. The event, themed “Art in Nature and Nature in Art,” will honor Robert and Joan Rechnitz, a Middletown couple, who along with working with the foundation for many years, established the Two River Theater, a professional equity theater facility in Red Bank.
Judith Stanley Coleman founded the Monmouth Conservation Foundation in 1977 and served as its president until her death in 2010. Coleman, a Middletown resident who for many years served on the township’s planning board, had developed a considerable reputation for her work on land preservation, as well as her involvement in many other arenas, like Republican politics and philanthropic work.
Over the last 35 years the foundation Coleman founded has worked to preserve 6,500 acres throughout Monmouth County, as the county’s only continuing land-trust organization, according to the foundation’s information.
What the not-for-profit foundation does is serve as an intermediary, as a facilitator, between the public and private entities working to preserve land. They help determine how the property will be used in the future.
“It’s about partnerships,” Kastning said.
“We never own land, we never hold land – and that’s by choice.” Kastning, a professional planner, has been working as the foundation’s executive director since February. Previously, he was with the state’s Green Acres program, which works in cooperation with local and county governments in New Jersey to preserve open space for passive and active recreation.
Its recent projects include the acquisition of Princeton Nurseries, located in Upper Freehold Township, in the county’s western part. At 1,200 acres it is the largest piece of property of existing farmlands in the county. The pending procurement is a project by Green Acres, Upper Freehold Township, the county’s park system and others. The plans call for the location to be added to county’s Crosswicks Creek Park for a new state wildlife management area.
Another project in the works is for 44 acres of Gimbel Farm in Middletown. The foundation is working with state and county entities and private funds for an easement to attach the land to county park property.
A project completed in 2011, also in Middletown, saved 30 acres of what had been the Coe estate on Sleepy Hollow Road. It is now being used as a group home for young adults with autism. The project was another public/private partnership that included the environmental organization NY/NJ Baykeepers, among others.
“The day-to-day lives around here are enhanced by your environment, maintaining open space,” said Marraccini, the foundation’s president. “It’s a healthy environment, in both a physical and mental perspective in Monmouth County that we’re trying to preserve.”
Marraccini, who lives in Middletown, said his perspective was shaped by his childhood, growing up on Staten Island. That New York City borough, he remembered, seemed to do everything wrong when it came to zoning and development, crushing over the years what had been a largely wooded area. “Do you just want density and sprawl?” he asked. “I don’t want to live in an environment where my kids want to get out of.”
The foundation has a working relationship with most of the county’s 53 municipalities. But, Marraccini conceded, in difficult economic times, it is tougher to get local governments to sign on for the dollars preservation may require and to say no to what locals may see as potential ratables to fill local tax coffers.
But, the race for ratables can lead down a dead end, which towns will have to live with for many years, he stressed. “It actually ends up costing more.
“So, saving land is a better cost return,” in many ways, he said. If, he said, “you save a tree, you save it forever.”