LOWER TOWNSHIP – The Lower Township Planning Board March 7 unanimously approved a use variance for a property spanning more than seven acres in the conservation zone, allowing the construction of 21 new homes adjacent to the Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area.
The decision came after about two hours of testimony from neighbors and township residents asking the board to reject the application, citing concerns over habitat loss, increased traffic and damage to what has become a beloved natural area.
“I am concerned that the development would harm the area, would destroy wildlife habitat,” said Lower Township resident Brian Williamson. “Cox Hall Creek provides some of the last, best suitable habitat for many species of wildlife in the Villas and Lower Township.”
Other speakers raised concerns about drainage and about the impact of a drainage pond planned for the site.
“I’m going to have tons of mosquitoes. My whole neighborhood is going to have tons of mosquitoes,” said neighbor Joann Prentice.
But it was the environmental argument that neighbors returned to again and again.
“I, for one, have seen the eagles in the trees behind me. I see the hawks in the trees behind me. I have the red-headed woodpecker that’s back there in the trees all the time,” Prentice said. She and others also mentioned box turtles that make their home in the area.
“To us, it’s a big, huge loss if these houses are built. I don’t think we can afford to lose a single acre,” said resident Denise L. Jones.
The property was once part of the sprawling Ponderlodge golf course, which the state Department of Environmental Protection purchased from a bankruptcy court in 2005 for $8.45 million, preserving the site as a natural area.
Even before the purchase, some of the site had returned to nature, with trees and scrub growing on the former fairways. Since then, buildings have been demolished at the site, which has become a popular destination for walkers, birdwatchers and others.
But according to testimony presented at the Feb. 7 meeting, a section of the former golf course is in private hands, given as payment of a debt and remained in private hands through the state purchase. Attorney Jeffery Barnes, representing applicant Marcello Mogavero, argued that the township would not have changed the zoning of the parcel from residential to conservation zone if officials knew it was private land.
At the previous meeting, township planning director William Galestok supported that assertion, saying he would not have recommended the conservation zone for private land. At the last meeting, experts testified on the applicant’s behalf that the current zoning does not give the owner any practical way to use the land, amounting to the township taking the property, what’s known as inverse condemnation.
At the February meeting, the board ran out of time to hear from the residents who crowded the meeting room to have their say. Many were back at the continued meeting, each speaking in opposition to the use variance.
It was not enough to sway a single vote.
“The one thing we have in common is, we all love Ponderlodge,” said board member Bruce Waterman. But he does not believe the private portion should have been included in the conservation zone. “This piece of property slipped through our cracks. The state dropped the ball. They should have bought it when they bought Ponderlodge.”
No one wants to see open space developed, he said, speaking about collecting beach plums for jam and wide areas of the township without a single house when he was younger.
“If it was just by emotions, I’m on your side. Let’s save the property,” he said. “But what happens to the owner of that property? That person has a right to compensation.”
He said the board has no legal basis to deny the application and suggested to do so would mean the matter would end up in court.
“The story is a sad story. It doesn’t have a good ending,” he said. Doing what he called the “feel good” thing and denying the application would result in an appeal. “That costs the taxpayers of this township money. Big money. It’s not cheap. And we would lose.”
The parcel is a triangle of woods with Fourth Avenue as the shortest side and Shawmont Avenue forming another side and the property line of houses along Edna Avenue making up the third. Most of the 7.376-acre property falls within the conservation zone, with a small section listed as zoned residential.
The owner is Susan Andreassi, Inc. of Philadelphia, with Mogavero making the application to the board.
The proposal will still require a site plan approval and subdivision before any construction could begin. As presented, plans call for a new cul-de-sac off of 4th Avenue across from Cedardale Avenue with five lots on either side, with two more lots on Shawmont Avenue off of Bayshore Road.
While maps of the wildlife area do not include the property, there is no clear indication at the site that the section is private land and not part of the preserved natural area. A fence divides the property from the backyards of the nearby houses, but there is no marker or fence separating the private land from the paths of the Cox Hall Creek preserve.