Residents band to scrap County misuse of Open Space

Friday, February 17th, 2006

This past Monday over 300 residents stormed a Scotch Plains Zoning Board meeting to protest the county’s plans to lease the Ponderosa Farm property in their town to a children’s petting zoo.

The meeting room, which had a capacity for only 140 people, was inspected by the fire department who then determined that the overcrowding was creating an unsafe condition, and they shut down the meeting.

In 2003, Union County purchased the 20-acre Ponderosa Farms property on Cooper Road from the Sevell family for $10 million using Open Space Trust fund monies.

At the time, residents of Scotch Plains were relieved to know that their elected officials were dedicated to preserving one of the few remaining parcels of undeveloped land in the community.

The freeholders, none of whom reside in Scotch Plains, did not consult the residents of Scotch Plains when they decided to enter into a memorandum of understanding to allow a petting zoo with 140 animals, parking, portable toilets and animal waste receptacles to be built by Green Meadows on the former Ponderosa Farms. For a mere $50,000/year lease.

Scotch Plains residents were served well with local organizers who quickly laid out the impact the county’s actions would have on their neighbors:

1) The zoo plans call for PARKING to be built for 250 CARS and 24 BUSES! this will cause a great deal of TRAFFIC and CONGESTION along an already busy road.

2) In the midst of a quiet RESIDENTIAL neighborhood, a COMMERCIAL enterprise will exist that will generate CROWDS, GARBAGE and NOISE SEVEN DAYS A WEEK.

3) Our PROPERTY VALUES will DECLINE.

OUR OWN TAXPAYER DOLLARS ARE BEING USED TO HARM OUR QUALITY OF LIFE!

WERE WE INFORMED OF THE DECISIONS OF OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS?

NO!

WERE WE GIVEN AN OPPORTUNITY TO VOICE OUR CONCERNS?

NO!

OPEN SPACE DOES NOT MEAN COMMERCIAL ENTERPRISE.

WE OPPOSE THE PROPOSED ZOO.

IN THIS ELECTION YEAR, PLEASE LET US WORK TOGETHER TO FIND A USE FOR THE PROPERTY THAT WILL BENEFIT ALL OF US.

When the fire department shut the meeting down the county had been only about 15 minutes into making their presentation to the zoning board in which the county attorney was defending their right to do what ever the hell they wanted with “the county’s property.”

If I didn’t know what the nine freeholders looked like I would have taken this attorney for one. He was acting like a freeholder himself by being arrogant and trying to bully the large crowd. He insisted that the county was only making a presentation out of a courtesy to the residents and that the local zoning board had no jurisdiction over the county property.

He warned that the town would have to file an expensive suit in Superior Court if they wanted to object to the county’s plans.

The county failed miserably at trying to bully the people of Scotch Plains, which was evidenced by the large crowd that night and by a statement by Mayor Martin Marks reported in the Westfield/Scotch Plains Leader in this week’s edition.

The mayor said that the township committee stood behind their residents and that they were pursuing a diplomatic resolution with the county. The mayor also stated that even town officials were surprised by the breadth and scope of the county’s project.

The mayor said that if their diplomatic efforts failed then they would take it beyond diplomacy if necessary.

The Scotch Plains Coalition to Stop the Farm also turned out en masse at Thursday night’s freeholder meeting. After listening to residents make their case, the freeholders went into an executive session meeting to discuss the issue. When they came out they dramatically announced to the packed room in what was surely meant to be a public relations coup: “Democracy worked! We listened to the people!” This resulted in a standing ovation from the crowd. The freeholders had scrapped their plans, for the time being, but still maintained that they had a right to “build on open space.”

If democracy was working in Union County then the people of Scotch Plains would have been consulted about plans for their town before the county entered into an agreement with an outside business.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the farmer, who looked like a deer caught in headlights when addressing the zoning board, backed out of the deal when he saw that over 300 residents surrounding the location of his new business venture were so adamantly against him. I’m sure he has a tale to tell. It’s evident that he didn’t expect a problem since the Green Meadows website had been already listing Scotch Plains as a location: www.greenmeadowsfarm.com/images/mulberryforweb.pdf

Scotch Plains won this battle because a passionate and talented group of residents were successful at rallying their neighbors. They also won because the Scotch Plains township committee aren’t puppets of Union County Democrat powerbrokers.

The moral of the story here folks is that balanced representation and active citizen participation works!