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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

25 years.

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

April, 2002.

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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