HAMMONTON — Tuckahoe Turf Farms attracted little attention hosting small-scale soccer practices and games on its hundreds of acres of pristine grass here.
But when it started hosting tournaments last fall that draw about 2,000 people from several states, people noticed.
So did the Pinelands Commission, which on April 21 instructed the farm to immediately cease all organized youth soccer activity on its 307 acres, citing the farm’s zoning and a deed restriction limiting its uses to low-intensity activities.
Its owners agreed to the deed restriction when they sold most of their Pinelands Development Bank credits for about $300,000 in the 1990s, according to the commission.
The farm has a national reputation for growing quality grass: Its sod can be found at Fenway Park, Lincoln Field and other major league sports venues.
Now, the commission’s action is not only threatening large events scheduled for the Mid-Atlantic Soccer Showcase League and South Jersey Barons, including a MSSL Memorial Day Tournament from May 24 to May 26. It is also threatening use of the fields for practices and single games.
MSSL Director Bohdan Porytko said an attorney is reviewing the issue and the organization had no comment.
No one from the Betts family, which owns the farm, would comment either, citing the advice of attorney Howard Long.
It is unclear how much money, if any, the turf farm is making from the arrangements. But the town has been happy to receive tournament visitors’ business in its restaurants, shops and hotels. The most recent event took place on Easter weekend.
“The economic benefit to town is undeniable,” Councilman Dan Bachalis said at a recent Town Council meeting. “I was at the Silver Coin (diner) on Easter weekend, and four out of five tables were filled with kids in for the soccer games.”
Town Attorney Brian Howell had asked councilmembers how they felt about the tournaments, during which 55 games can go on at once.
“I wish we had an aerial shot of it,” said Howell of the farm’s fields filled with children. “It’s incredibly well organized, with food trucks and (portable) bathrooms.”
Howell said the farm’s attorney had requested a statement from council after getting pushback from the commission.
Neither the soccer leagues nor the farm had applied to the Pinelands Commission for approval before beginning the soccer events, and the commission found out about the activity in October. It asked the leagues for information about 2014 plans, which it received in February, and sent its decision letter to the Betts family April 21.
At a recent South Jersey Barons game at the farm, children played on fields with irrigation equipment nearby. Hundreds of acres of sod surrounded the single field being used that night. Row upon row of soccer nets were visible, stored on various fields for tournament use.
Parents had brought their kids to the game in about 50 cars, all parked on a hard-packed field next to the lush playing surface. They said losing the fields there would be a big blow.
“This facility has done wonders for the children,” said Stephanie Slimmer, who travels from Mauricetown to Hammonton with her daughter twice a week for practice, and once a week for games in Hammonton and elsewhere. Her daughter is on a highly competitive U-11 team.
“This is the same type of grass professionals play on,” said Mike Lutz, of Woolwich Township, Gloucester County, adding that night’s game was a state cup match. He said his daughter Abby’s U-11 Barons team, which draws members from a wide geographic region in South Jersey, is in the top 10 for the age group in the region and probably in the top 20 in the nation.
Lutz said the farm is strict about where cars can drive and park, and about speed limits. Driving is relegated to hard-packed roads or asphalt roads only, and parking is only allowed on fields that are not currently in use for sod growing.
“A 55-foot tractor-trailer comes in to move their products,” Lutz said, adding he thinks soccer families’ cars would do less damage to the farm than trucks do.
But the farm is located in Hammonton’s Agricultural Production zoning district, within a Pinelands Agricultural Production Area. Most of the land used for soccer is also subject to a Pinelands Development Credit deed restriction that permanently limits its use to “agriculture, forestry, low intensity recreation and certain agriculturally related facilities,” according to the April 21 decision letter from the commission’s Director of Regulatory Programs, Charles Horner.
Low-intensity recreation uses the natural environment of the Pinelands and requires no significant modifications, Horner wrote, and it includes hiking, hunting, trapping, fishing, canoeing, nature study, orienteering, horseback riding and bicycling.
“Continued use of the parcel for organized soccer activities would constitute a violation of Hammonton’s land-use ordinance, the Pinelands CMP and the Pinelands Development Credit deed restriction. Please cease all organized soccer activities on the parcel,” Horner wrote.
Commission spokesman Paul Leakan said staff is meeting soon with the farm’s attorney and would not expect future tournaments to go forward. He said the commission has not faced a similar situation before.
Sierra Club of New Jersey Director Jeff Tittel, who has had his disagreements with the commission, defended its actions on this issue.
“People don’t realize there are a lot of impacts from cars and runoff from cars,” said Tittel. “It’s not the Pinelands Commission vs. soccer. This guy (the turf farm owner) has violated the agreement and the commitment he made.”
He said the farm has to use more fertilizer to keep the fields green after heavy use, and doing so creates more fertilizer runoff.
But since the farm only has tournaments scheduled for nine days a year, it shouldn’t have a detrimental environmental effect even if it brings in large crowds, said Hammonton Councilman Mickey Pullia.
Councilman Tom Gribbin said every room in the Econo Lodge was rented Easter weekend, in part because of the tournament.
“I can’t see how in any way it would not be endorsed (by council),” Gribbin said.
Bachalis, who is on the town’s environmental commission, said he understands the commission must put protecting the Pinelands first, but “we’re not adding to the development already established.” He said portable toilets don’t impact water quality, as all waste is removed.
“My only concern is traffic, and that can be worked out,” Mayor Steve DiDonato said.
Small sections of the farm are in Winslow and Waterford townships.
No one from Winslow Township returned calls for comment.
Waterford Township Administrator Lawrence C. Ruocco said the tournaments are not of concern to his township, since the playing fields and parking areas are restricted to the Hammonton portion. He was not aware of any substantial traffic issues in Waterford.
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