By KAYLA J. MARSH
Since 1977, Middletown-based Monmouth Conservation Foundation (MCF) has been dedicated to preserving and protecting the natural habitat of Monmouth County and has been successful in helping to save more than 22,500 acres of open space and farmland.
On March 2, at the Fort Monmouth Recreation Center in Tinton Falls, the group held its first annual community meeting where dozens of stakeholders — municipal leaders, environmental officials, concerned citizens — discussed different parks, farms and open spaces that can be preserved or created to ensure Monmouth County remains beautiful for generations to come.
“At some point in time, Monmouth County is going to be fully built out and there’ll be no more land to preserve,” said William Kastning, executive director of MCF. “The intent of this is to listen to what you want, to understand what you would like us to facilitate better on your behalf … we’re open to a lot of new ideas.”
Deputy Executive Director Amanda Brockwell said as more farmland and open space is developed into residential or commercial communities and properties, the unique character of the community diminishes.
“We need perseverance for land preservation,” she said. “Our mission is to acquire, hold, preserve and protect open spaces, historic areas, park and recreation areas in Monmouth County, as well as to fundraise and to apply for grants for those efforts.
“This organization has worked diligently over the past 39 years to try to slow the pace [of development] for a more balanced community and a better quality of life for all of us.”
Brockwell said the important message to take away is that nothing is done single-handedly, as MCF plays a big facilitation role by either bringing in some funding or being a negotiation arm.
“We’re talking about lands with big price tags, and they’re complicated deals and it requires partners, and we’re very lucky to have excellent partnerships with many towns as well as the County of Monmouth,” she said. “We want to be that voice to champion the cause and ensure that these projects move forward.”
Jena M. Cosmio, director of acquisitions, discussed two of the most recent projects MCF is working on: Swimming River Park and Freneau Woods Park.
“Swimming River Park, which is in Middletown on the border with Red Bank, is about 14 acres, and we were able to assist Monmouth County with securing this property,” she said. “There are some environmental issues on the property, which we are working together with them to take care of, and in about 18 to 24 months this property will be open to the public, and it’ll offer waterfront recreational opportunities.”
Cosmio said the deal to establish Freneau Woods Park has been very exciting.
“This is actually a new county park that is up in the Aberdeen area,” she said. “It is in its very initial stages [but] we just assisted the county to acquire most of this acreage, and we’re working with them to secure additional acreage so there is hope that it will expand.
“This will also be a passive recreational park, and it is rich with environmental and historical importance, but most important it is in a densely populated area where it is greatly needed.”
In keeping with the theme of discussing different lands, farms and open spaces that should be preserved, Freeholder Lillian Burry talked about the county’s newest initiative “Grown in Monmouth.”
“Agriculture is a billion dollar business in the state of New Jersey and we want to keep this Garden State green,” she said. “With a program like Grown in Monmouth, I think it is important to acknowledge the necessity for farms and link that with open space.
“People are looking for the local produce and products, and they want things that they can identify with that come from someplace familiar … and the great thing is that it is supporting their fellow county people.”
Vice President of the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association (NMHA) Rik van Hemmen talked about a plan he is developing to create a National Marine Sanctuary in Monmouth County.
He said National Marine Sanctuaries are the water-based equivalent of National Parks and NMHA has joined in efforts to create the Sandy Hook Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
“This National Marine Sanctuary is envisioned to start at the tip of Sandy Hook to the tip of Earle Weapon Center and extend upstream into the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers including tributaries such as the Swimming River,” van Hemmen said. “We would end up with about 12,500 acres, almost 20 square miles, of public-use parkland to Eastern Monmouth County.”
He said the Sanctuary would provide sustainable resource management and improvements including fisheries, recreation and habitation; provide a setting that integrates the water with adjoining land-based parks and public access points; and provide a setting for exploration and education.
“Really the goal is about talking and teaching ourselves and teaching our children about man/nature interaction,” he said.
“It used to be if the land got dirty you moved on, but today we can’t do that so we have to find ways to sustain it, make it work for us and that is what this is about, and I think this is a win-win proposition.”
Brockwell said that despite some great work done in open space preservation, there’s still much work to do and a small window of opportunity in which to do it.
“As we progress, there’s fewer and fewer preservation opportunities,” she said. “More and more land is developed and there [are fewer] opportunities for preservation, which means that we need to think a little bit more about the future.
“We are trying to look ahead and better understand what the needs of the community are, to figure out what the best properties are to preserve and ask how you want to use these lands or how you even want to use the lands we have already preserved.
“There’s been some great work done in open space preservation, and we’re taking a much more predominant role in advocacy for conservation efforts and being that voice, and we have been blessed with the partnerships we have and look forward to building new ones.”