Old Bridge begins preservation of Cottrell Farm, almost two decades in the making

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OLD BRIDGE — It was a historic day as Charlene O’Hara stood on the Cottrell Farm site where her mother Catharine Cottrell Wallace was born 101 years ago.

“It means a great deal to my family to know the historic nature of this property is going to be preserved for future generations,” she said.

O’Hara joined Mayor Owen Henry, Business Administrator Himanshu Shah, State Sen. Sam Thompson (R-12), former Mayor Barbara Cannon, former Mayor James Phillips’ wife Janet, members of the Township Council and township officials during a groundbreaking ceremony for Phase I of Cottrell Farm Park Building Rehabilitation on July 9. The ceremony was streamed live on Facebook.

Cottrell Farm, a 21.5-acre historical apple orchard farm across the street from the Old Bridge Municipal Complex on Route 516, was acquired from Herbert Cottrell Jr. using funding from Middlesex County, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres and Old Bridge Township Open Space Trust Funds.

O’Hara said her mother and brother Herbert were raised in the house on the site, which dates back to 1840.

“Herbert lived here until he died a few years ago,” she said.

O’Hara said her mom’s family is one of the oldest families dating back to the Revolutionary War.

“A hill on the property used to be used as a signal area during that time,” she said. “The family can be traced back to my great, great grandfather John W. Herbert Sr. Many generations have farmed on this land and it has been passed down from generation to generation in the Herbert family and it crossed over to the Cottrell family when a son-in-law Garrett Cottrell purchased the land.”

O’Hara said the land was used as a fruit and vegetable farm, a cedar mill and a distillery.

In 2010, Cottrell Farm was acquired by Middlesex County in accordance with the Open Space Recreation, and Farmland and Historic Preservation Act and the Middlesex County Open Space Plan. Additionally, the site is subject to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Green Acres Program restrictions.

The Cottrell Farm, owned by the Cottrell family, had been in the township for more than 200 years. John Hauser had been preserving and maintaining the buildings for 30 years up until the county acquired the land in 2010.

The Township of Old Bridge entered into a Conservation Management Agreement with Middlesex County on April 6, 2017, where the township has accepted responsibility for security, liability, management and enforcement of the Green Acres Restrictions and enforcement of Middlesex County Park rules and regulations not inconsistent with the deed restrictions.

The county acquisition and conservation management agreement was the result of the foresight of former Mayor James Phillips and his administration, who wanted to see the area preserved and did not want to see the area developed into high-density multi-family units and commercial space.

Shah noted the site became available in early 2000, but funding and assistance did not come right away.

Janet Phillips attended the ceremony on behalf of her husband, who passed away in 2014. She said the timing of the groundbreaking is meaningful to her family.

“Yesterday was Jim’s birthday,” she said. “This would have made him extremely happy and proud to see the project coming into reality. In 2010 when the property acquisition was completed Jim was quoted in one of the newspapers saying, ‘This certainly needs to be a combined effort to acquire these properties, but everyone stepped up to the plate and wholeheartedly agreed that this land needed to be preserved.’ ”

Phillips said she would like to thank all the people who stepped up to the plate to plan the transition of the Cottrell Farm Park.

“It is something Old Bridge residents now and our children and grandchildren in the future will really be proud of and enjoy,” she said.

Nicole Shapiro, township director of community development and engineer, said in 2017, the mayor came to her and said with the conservation management agreement, they needed to move forward with something for the site.

“It’s just too beautiful to let it sit,” she recalled the mayor saying. “Let’s make sure we come up with something great for the property.”

Shapiro brainstormed ideas with the Department of Parks and Recreation and a steering committee was formed.

“Today we sit in Phase 1 groundbreaking, which entails interior and exterior [improvements] to the Cottrell Farm House building, exterior [improvements] to the stone garage, CMU shop garage and the red barn,” she said. “The next phase will accomplish the interior of the buildings plus the interior and exterior of the pool house. We are following state historic preservation office guidelines for upkeep and rehabilitation. We currently are finalizing our Phase 1 site plan and looking to bid the project in the fall.”

As part of the five-phased plan, township officials worked with French and Parrello Associates, an engineering firm based in Wall Township, and EI Associates, of Cedar Knolls, on design and preservation of the farm.

The five buildings on the farm will be maintained and preserved. The Cottrell Farm House, which is 3,469 square feet, is proposed as a meeting hall, lecture hall, warming kitchen and administrative offices. The barn, which is 1,375 square feet, is proposed as a large event space with option for a mezzanine. The stone garage, which is 947 square feet, is proposed as event space. The CMU shop garage, which is 1,890 square feet, is proposed for medium-sized events, community/meeting rooms, and overflow space for large events in conjunction with large events in the barn. The pool cottage, which is 720 square feet, will be used as a storage building.

Ruben Garrido, manager of EI Associates Architectural Department, said the farmhouse dates back to around 1850 during the Greek Revival period.

Michael Piga, of French and Parrello Associates, said the farm property is envisioned to have a great lawn area parallel to Route 516, an amphitheater for small bands and Shakespeare in the Park, a pavilion, and a small playground and splash pad for children. Walking and trail paths are proposed throughout the park with an area for a memorial with brick pavers and historic signage along the paths.

The main parking lot along Cottrell Road is envisioned to serve the farmers market, community/butterfly garden area and event parking. Two to three other small parking lots are also proposed in the park.

“There will be something for every user in this park,” Shapiro said, as the public can enjoy meandering through apple orchards for passive recreation. “There is a greenhouse on the other side of the farmhouse that is important … we are actually going to reconstruct the greenhouse.”

The existing apple orchard will also be preserved and maintained, officials said.

Shapiro said the preliminary cost of preserving the Cottrell Farm is $6.25 million. And with continued successful partnerships with the community, Middlesex County, DEP Green Acres, New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, along with the state historic preservation office, township officials believe the plan will move further along in their efforts to make it a jewel for Middlesex County, for Old Bridge Township and for the community.

Shapiro said the township has received $1.5 million from DEP Green Acres and is expected to receive $1.5 million from the state historic preservation office.

Henry said it was an “arduous, difficult and challenging” journey leading up to the groundbreaking ceremony. He said his predecessors and prior administrations had the foresight and fortitude to realize the historic value of Cottrell Farm.

“The unwavering efforts and tireless dedication to those involved in this project saved this beautiful historic farm,” he said, adding the preservation of the site will make Old Bridge a better place to live, work and raise families.

Council President Mary Sohor said the groundbreaking ceremony for the project was a great way to follow the township’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2019.

“We are going to have something here that will bring all the community together,” she said.