HAMMONTON — One youth soccer group will fight to keep playing at Tuckahoe Turf Farms here, despite the Pinelands Commission’s demand that organized soccer there cease.
“The Commission’s decision is internally inconsistent and would not withstand scrutiny in court,” attorney Robert A. McKinley of Lauletta Birnbaum, who represents the South Jersey Elite Barons Soccer Academy, said in a written statement Wednesday.
In an interview Wednesday, McKinley said he doesn’t expect the issue to go to court.
“I don’t think it should,” he said. “With additional information I think the commission will ... go in a different direction.”
Meanwhile, the organizer of a Memorial Day soccer tournament planned for Tuckahoe Turf Farms said the tournament will go forward May 24-26, there or at another site.
“We have turned the situation over to counsel and they are exploring what our options are,” said Mid-Atlantic Soccer Showcase League Director Bohdan Porytko. “We are developing contingency plans should that be necessary.”
Commission spokesman Paul Leakan, on behalf of Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg, said he could not give a definitive answer about whether the tournament can be held at the farm.
“I can tell you we are in discussion with the property owners and not aware of any events being canceled,” he said.
The farm is in an agricultural zone, where only low-intensity recreation is allowed, wrote the commission’s Director of Regulatory Programs Charles Horner in an April 21 letter to the Betts family, which owns the farm. The letter instructed the farm to cease all organized soccer activities, because they do not meet the commission’s definition of low-intensity recreation, which are supposed to utilize the natural environment without modifications.
The commission considers hiking, hunting, trapping, fishing, canoeing, nature study, horseback riding and bicycling to be low-intensity, the letter said. In addition, the commission said the farm’s owners voluntarily deed restricted their land by selling most of their Pinelands Development Bank credits for about $276,500 in the 1990s.
The Barons have used the sod farm for practice and games for several years without attracting attention. But when MSSL began holding tournaments there last fall, attracting about 2,000 people per event, the commission started investigating.
The Barons’ McKinley said the group uses the fields the most during spring and fall, when its teams practice there four nights a week and play games there on weekends. But the most they use is four fields at a time, he said.
“The very turf at issue here is later scraped from the earth, rolled into bails and sold commercially,” McKinley also said in the statement. “If that activity is permissible, how can playing soccer on the same turf prior to removal cause harm to the Pinelands?”
McKinley also questioned how hunting, trapping and fishing — which take resources from the land — can be considered low-intensity recreation, as the Pinelands Commission has said, but not soccer.
McKinley said the only way the commission could seek enforcement of its decision is through the courts, but it has not moved in that direction.
Leakan said the commission usually works with municipalities to enforce land use laws, but if and when that is not possible it can ask the state Attorney General’s Office to represent it in court. All Pinelands municipalities have incorporated commission land use rules into their own rules.
It is unclear if Hammonton officials would work with the commission to stop the soccer activities at the farm. Town council has not voted on the matter, but many councilmen have said they support the soccer events, since they give kids a recreational outlet and bring visitors who contribute to the local economy.
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.
Barons players, mainly from Camden, Gloucester, Burlington, and Atlantic counties, compete in top level tournaments nationally and the club attracts national level competition to the state, according to the Barons. The group estimates that between 75 and 80 percent of its athletes later play in college, with 20 percent recruited to Division 1 schools.
On May 9, Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, and Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, also D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, called on the Pinelands Commission to work with Tuckahoe Turf Farms to allow soccer events to go forward.
There are nine large tournaments scheduled for 2014, which each bring about 2,000 people to the Hammonton area.
Neither the farm nor groups that hold soccer events there ever applied to the commission for permits, even though the farm is in the Pinelands National Reserve, according to the commission.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: