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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Snatching Open Space from the Jaws of Development
To some people, a town like Plainsboro defines suburban
sprawl. But in fact the township has been an open space pioneer in
New Jersey, aggressively buying and preserving land for more than
Through the vision of Mayor Peter Cantu and the efforts of numerous
regional officials, more than 2,500 contiguous acres of open space,
spanning vast sections of southern Middlesex County, have been permanently
preserved. The crowning achievement of this vision is the 630-acre
Plainsboro Preserve, which opened in 2000.
The township’s formal efforts to preserve the tract started in the
late 1980s when the township rezoned the site from industrial to low-density
residential with a cluster provision "with the intent to see as
much of the property as possible there preserved."
The Preserve site, originally purchased in 1897 by the Walker-Gordon
Company for its diary operation and pioneer laboratories, was used
for a gravel mining operation by the McCormack Sand and Gravel Company,
namesake of the Preserve’s Lake McCormack. Some of the dredged fill
that created the lake went to shore up Meadowlands Stadium in the
swamps of Hackensack in Bergen County. Walker-Gordon milked its last
cow in 1971; McCormack stopped mining the property in the 1970s after
it was no longer able to transport gravel along the railroad line.
Through several years of negotiations, Plainsboro Township was able
to raise $2.9 million for the purchase of 530 acres of preserve property
from Henry Jeffers, the CEO of Walker Gordon. Another 100 acres at
the front of the site between the preserve and Scotts Corner Road
is still in corn, leased back to farmers for up to 30 years, before
it becomes part the preserve’s management.
Plainsboro Township then struck an agreement with the New Jersey Audubon
Society to establish trails, manage the preserve, and run the Environmental
and Education Center — funded by private donations — that
is currently being built on the property. The township’s eventual
goal is to build the preserve to 1,000 acres.
Audubon’s Brian Vernachio, who manages the site, explains
that the Preserve is just that: A place of passive recreation and
nature study. "The Preserve is deed restricted and dedicated to
nature study," he explains. "Hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country
skiing, bird watching, photography, and other passive enjoyments are
all permitted." Picnicking is not allowed; the park has a "carry
in and carry out" trash policy. Dogs and bicycles are not welcome
and there is no swimming or fishing in the lake.
More troublesome than the establishment of trails has been the 6,500-square-foot
Plainsboro Preserve Environmental and Education Center, designed by
Manders and Merighi Associates of Vineland, but not yet completed.
The firm also designed the popular Cape May Bird Observatory Center
for Research and Education, owned by the New Jersey Audubon Society.
The new Plainsboro center is sited on the edge of 50-acre McCormack
Lake, which is the centerpiece of the site. Groundbeaking took place
September, 2001, in the hope the building would be completed around
The building’s original cost was estimated between $850,000 and $1
million, but that sum became moot when the original contractor went
out of business. When the project’s bonding company brought in a new
contractor, structural flaws in the original work were discovered
that have recently been corrected. The hope is that the center will
enjoy its grand opening sometime in late April.
The Environmental and Education Center will house a large amphitheater
designed for classes and seminars. A striking design feature is an
18-by-30-foot, two-story glass window that offers a dramatic view
of the lake. Also offered will be interactive displays on the ecology
and natural history of the area, a reference library, a small bookstore,
and an "Under the Pond" experience room. For now, Vernachio,
and Tara Miller, the center’s teacher-naturalist, are at the Preserve
in a temporary home until the building is complete.
Vernachio, 35, grew up in the Pine Barrens in Ocean County, and developed
an interest in natural history at an early age. The oldest of three
brothers, he enjoyed fishing and hunting with his parents. "Every
Sunday we’d take a ride down to the Brigantine to look at the ducks.
We’d spend a lot of time out in the woods," he says. He earned
his BS in environmental studies from Richard Stockton College in 1992.
Vernachio’s work in the environment began while he was still in his
teens. "While I was going to school I worked for Cattus Island
County Park, Ocean County Park Environmental Education Center. My
internship was at Cape May as a hawk watcher. Through my volunteer
work and internship I was able to get some contract work."
His first full-time job was at Rancocas Nature Center in Mount Holly.
He came to the Plainsboro Preserve at the beginning of New Jersey
Audubon Society’s involvement. He now lives in Ocean County, not far
from where he grew up. He and his wife have two young children.
Over the course of 20 years working with the environment, Vernachio
says although awareness of New Jersey’s recreation opportunities has
grown, many people are still unaware of the numerous opportunities
that exist. "The Audubon Society and my job is to help get people
connected with their environment, here in their own back yard, and
let them know they’re a part of this."
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