Township, county purchase more than 300 acres for preservation

More than a year after the township committee approved a $20 million bond ordinance to purchase a 335-acre plot of land, officials recently announced that the deal has been finalized.

Sandwiched between Hillsborough Township’s Mountain View and Ann Van Middlesworth Parks, and located next to the 5,500-acre Sourland Mountain Preserve, the newly acquired tract is now part of more than 700 acres of protected land.

“Hillsborough Township is known for its award-winning parks and trails. This additional acreage magnifies that commitment to our community,” Mayor Gloria McCauley said during a recent township committee meeting. “Our long-term vision had been to connect these three strategic parcels.”

According to officials, the property is flat, relatively open and features a view of the Sourland Mountains.

“We are pleased that the county was able to assist Hillsborough in obtaining this important property,” Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire said. “Not only will it be preserved from residential development, but it also perfectly complements the Sourland Mountain preservation area.”

Along with the parcel’s protected status as open space, McCauley touted the purchase as a way for the township to skirt the construction of more than 2,000 new homes, as well as a way to reduce the municipality’s affordable housing requirements by more than 400 units.

This was not the first time that the plot changed hands over the last 20 years. More than a decade ago, the property was part of a bank auction, where it sold for $2.5 million. At the time, the township did not bid for the land.

Since then, the property has been on the municipality’s radar, with regular negotiations to purchase it over the years, according to Business Administrator Anthony Ferrera. The main sticking point for the township, however, was that the asking price was always expensive for what Ferrera called a “dirty property.”

According to a bond ordinance that received unanimous support from the township committee in July 2017, the purchase and remediation of the property will be paid for through a lease purchase agreement with the Somerset County Improvement Authority.

In total, the township estimates that it will need to spend $18.5 million of the county’s $20 million bond for the acquisition of the property, with the remaining $1.5 million left over to cover any unexpected costs.

Officials said the township will not begin making any payments on the bonds until 2019.

According to the township, funding for the property and its remediation will be doled out as certain milestones are met. Only once a certain amount of the property has been cleaned and tested will bond money be disbursed.

The effort to acquire this piece of property is not unlike the joint effort made by the township and the Somerset County Improvement Authority to purchase the 369-acres of the former GSA Belle Mead Depot where Mountain View Park is now located. That property was purchased for just less than $15.8 million..