Local residents came out en masse Wednesday night to the Brick Township municipal complex, with the vast majority seeking to object to a proposal to develop a plot of land owned by the Church of the Visitation with 59 homes and multiple new streets.
The 30-acre parcel of land, located off Laurel Avenue between Mantoloking and Drum Point roads, was donated to the church with the intent of a religious use. The use of land, however, is not normally under the control of the local parish. Instead, decisions on the purchase, ownership and sale of land falls to the Diocese of Trenton, which sought approval for a 7,000-plot cemetery on the site. An attorney, at a previous meeting, openly warned local residents that if they opposed the cemetery, the diocese would likely develop the property with single-family homes.
The first of what is expected to be multiple hearings on the development proposal was scheduled for Wednesday night at 7 p.m., however the matter was adjourned by the township’s planning board until March 21, when it will be heard at a larger venue. Under New Jersey’s land use statutes, planning board meetings are quasi-judicial and must be open to the public with the opportunity for supporters or objectors to cross-examine witnesses and make statements to the board. In rare cases in which the number of people who wish to view the hearing eclipses the capacity of the venue, it must be relocated and rescheduled.
The March 21 meeting will be held at Civic Plaza, 270 Chambers Bridge Road, which contains the largest room owned by the municipal government.
Meanwhile, local residents and environmental groups are beginning a campaign to lobby the Diocese of Trenton to sell the land to Ocean County for preservation. The county is willing to consider the purchase, but it is a long-standing policy that the county only purchases property from willing sellers.
“We never go to eminent domain, or take land from parties that don’t wish to sell,” said Commissioner Jack Kelly, who said he spoke about the church property with fellow commissioner Virginia Haines this week.
The county purchases land only at its appraised market value and preserves it under what is known as the Natural Lands Trust, leaving the properties open to the public (though most are thoroughly wooded). The proposed development would be constructed by D.R. Horton, a home builder based in Texas, however the property remains owned by the diocese. The future planning board meeting will likely include details on the plans for the site – whether the proposed lots will be conveyed to Horton or if the diocese will sell them directly to buyers. Conceivably, this could affect the amount of revenue the diocese would derive from the land, but advocates hope to convince the diocese that selling to the county would be better for the community and the environment.
Save Barnegat Bay is among the groups that is beginning a phone-in campaign to the Diocese of Trenton to urge them to sell the land for preservation rather than development. The group also urged members to attend the planning board meeting.
“The Diocese of Trenton is planning to sell these beautiful healthy woods for destruction by a developer instead of to the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust, which is willing to purchase them to keep them forever natural,” the group said in an announcement over social media. “A huge amount of traffic will be added to our overburdened roads. Polluting stormwater runoff will enter Barnegat Bay either directly or by groundwater.”
The group said development in the area, which township officials have said contains wetlands, would affect populations of turtles, migratory birds and other species that rely on the woods for natural habitat shelter.
D.R. Horton said in a notice it intends to subdivide the 31.63-acre property into 59 individual lots for the construction of single-family residences, “along with roadways, parking, sidewalks, stormwater management, lighting, landscaping, signage and related site improvements.”
D.R. Horton is being represented by local attorneys, the Red Bank-based firm of Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla.