The feature below, headlined “FIRST LOOK: 775-Acre County Open Land Buy at Berkeley/Beachwood Border” when published in September 2015, took readers on the first tour of a unique tract of land purchased for open space preservation after decades of worried uncertainty by local residents on its fate. It also had the opportunity to take advantage of an early 2009 tour I had taken with planners for the site, using its photos, plus the submitted images of ATV riders, by an adjacent resident, who had been causing him concern on the site. Area historian Steven J. Baeli also submitted archival articles from the early 20th century that were used to piece together its past, forming a full picture to readers.
MID-OCEAN COUNTY – In a move that surprised many area residents from both its announcement and swift action, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders appeared almost overnight to scoop up one of the largest land preservation purchases in county history at the Berkeley Township/Beachwood Borough border using $11,225,000 from the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund.
Noting its remarkable mix of wildlife and natural vegetation on the former sand mining site, Freeholder Director John C. Bartlett Jr. stated in a county release that it is “one of the largest tracts to be added to our natural lands program… the landscape of the site varies greatly with parts that haven’t been touched, lakes and an area where the Barnegat Branch Rail Trail can work its way through.”
The land, which encompasses 775 acres, or 1.2 square miles, at the edge of the two municipalities and found south of Route 9 and the Beachwood Plaza/Johnson family property, is known alternately as the New Jersey Pulverizing Company land and, among area residents, Fisher’s Pit, stemming from the name of one of the original plant owners, Ervin Fisher, and possibly a similar business, the Fisher Bros. Sand and Gravel Company, the site of which stands about 2,000 feet to the west of the pulverizing company. It is often also mistaken as part of Johnson’s Pit, itself a local nickname from the adjacent property.
The Johnson tract of land, the front of which includes Beachwood Plaza – named as such despite its location within Berkeley Township and currently being demolished – held an asphalt production plant from the mid-to-late 20th century and is known to contain myriad contaminants, according to various studies, while the pulverizing company land was once used for mining sand, beginning in the early 1920s. The Central Railroad of New Jersey, later Conrail, right of way bisects the Fisher and Johnson properties running north to south. The cessation of the sand mining several decades ago allowed vegetation and wildlife to return, creating a startling landscape, which freeholders said helped in their decision to purchase it.
“There is no mining going on at the site,” Freeholder Bartlett said. “The previously disturbed areas of the property have become varied habitats which also include grassland and pinelands vegetation. This is a serene and peaceful site.”
Also adjacent to the property at its south end is the Ocean County Utilities Authority Central Treatment Plant on Hickory Lane, which the freeholder noted had an interest in about 60 acres along its border that it would fund separately.
SAND PLANT HISTORY
According to James S. Morgan, who researched the history of the railroad branch under the title, “Quail Run Dialogues,” the Central Railroad of New Jersey established a station stop called Quail Run for the Triangle Pulverizing Company in 1923, where the initial sand processing facility was built. This was replaced two years later, in December 1925, by the New Jersey Pulverizing Company, which built an “extensively mechanized system for processing sand and silica.” In early 1931, according to the New Jersey Courier, a weekly newspaper out of Toms River, provided courtesy Steven J. Baeli of the Ocean County Compendium of History, the company was hit with lawsuits from 18 workers afflicted with silicosis, lung fibrosis caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica, when workers were not instructed to wear masks. An x-ray specialist noted he had examined 60 workers and found their lungs to have the same condition.
Following the death of co-owner Ervin Fisher in 1933, Arnold Tanzer took over operations and “from 1933 to 1937, he undertook a series of modifications of the factory so extensive that some speak of a second factory [though] many of the original components of the factory are still in place… the major modification came about due to a change in emphasis from silica to sand” which caused the construction of the large sand silos present today. By 1935, the New Jersey Courier reported “about 180 tons” of silica sand produced daily.
In 1962, “the company began processing sand for Ace-Crete, a ready concrete mix. The silica was initially used in soap and scouring powder, but later also was used in plaster board and molding. During World War II, it was used to polish molds as well as gun barrels.” Rail service was abandoned by Conrail, which had taken over the Central Railroad line, effective April 1st, 1977, when the pulverizing company was “the only customer… shipping but one or two carloads each week” due to lowered service by the rail company, which forced New Jersey Pulverizing to switch to truck transportation, which “was not to the firm’s advantage” as rail service was all but crucial in the success of a sand plant.
From the 1960s to today, the pulverizing firm has continued to operate but, in later years, by importing sand for its services rather than mining it, allowing the site now purchased by the county to have reverted back to nature. According to the county release, “the property owner would retain about 45 acres for the dry concrete bagging operations which continues within buildings and silos” as part of the deal.
Fifteen years ago, national home builder corporation K. Hovnanian sought to build several thousand homes on the site, which was opposed by Save Barnegat Bay – a nonprofit educational and advocacy group dedicated to restoring and preserving the bay since 1971 – on the grounds of the subsequent massive impervious coverage and runoff that would directly harm the Toms River and Barnegat Bay. As a result of their very public activism and challenges, officials in Berkeley Township and surrounding towns opposed the plan, and following several years of litigation, the company was denied. By 2008, with the national economy in free-fall, K. Hovnanian officially dropped the plan.
“This is a BIG win for Barnegat Bay,” wrote Save Barnegat Bay Executive Director Britta Wenzel in an email yesterday. “There are so few large parcels of land remaining in Ocean County for open space preservation. Save Barnegat Bay was instrumental in starting the [Ocean County Natural Lands Trust] and in warding-off prior development schemes. We are extremely pleased to see this purchase move forward as it will improve the quality of life for local residents and provide a needed filter for water quality entering the bay.”
“The property also contains the headwaters to the Mill Creek which flows into the Toms River watershed,” Freeholder Bartlett noted.
RAIL TRAIL CONNECTION
As Freeholder Bartlett stated, the land purchase would also be used to connect part of the ongoing county rail trail project.
The Barnegat Branch Rail Trail, a county project that began late in the last decade to re-purpose the 15.6-mile long former Central Railroad of New Jersey right of way from Toms River to Barnegat as a contiguous walking/bike trail, has thus far been completed in sections from Barnegat to Lacey Township, and then within Berkeley Township. The Lacey Township portion of the rail trail continues to be fought over between officials determined to pave it over and offer an adjacent walkway and a faction of residents equally determined to see it used entirely for the trail. County officials have declined involvement in the fight and have instead worked on linking the trail across Berkeley Township in anticipation of a future final resolution.
This latest land purchase now allows that work to be connected with the existing Beachwood section, which has been an official municipal walking and bike path since the 1990s, and leads north to South Toms River, currently developing its own corridor plan to incorporate the trail, and downtown Toms River.
As soon as it was announced, reaction by local officials and residents was enthusiastic.
“The pulverizing site is amazing,” said Berkeley Township Mayor Carmen Amato, who thanked the entire freeholder board and Freeholder Bartlett in particular. “This is a great purchase and huge victory for our community in our effort to stop over-development. If this site were developed, it would have put an enormous strain on township services and infrastructure [and] could have added a lot more school children and made an already bad traffic situation worse.”
“I was afraid that area would turn into more houses or another giant strip mall, both of which this area doesn’t need more of,” said Beachwood resident Damian Kulikowski, who grew up and lives within a block of the site.
The county release noted that “with the inclusion of the 775 acres in Berkeley Township, the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund has preserved 16,604 acres of open space in Ocean County. In addition, 3,339 acres of farmland has been preserved.”
Freeholder Gerry P. Little, who serves as liaison to the Ocean County Planning Department, said almost 60 percent of the county’s 408,000 acres or 230,682 acres have been preserved for open space including federal, state and county lands.
“Half of Ocean County is preserved forever from development,” he said.
Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari, who was the former superintendent of schools in Berkeley Township, said an analysis done in 2005 showed a new school would have to have been built if the property had been developed.
“More than just the building you have to add in all the associated costs,” Vicari said. “Development there would have had a significant negative financial impact on the township.”
ATV TRAFFIC ISSUES
One issue that may arise in the near future is the use of motorized vehicles on the site, which Freeholder Bartlett told the Asbury Park Press would be disallowed, but which the site is famously known for among all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and dirt bike enthusiasts.
In recent years, the Beachwood governing body has fielded numerous complaints about ATV traffic to and from the site. Berkeley Avenue resident Justin Pierre in particular has been very proactive in taking to court many such riders who ignore borough codes against riding the vehicles and the signs that mark the property as private and allowing no trespassers, and regularly challenges borough officials as not doing enough to prevent the practice.
Borough officials have responded by stepping up patrols along the town border and installing barriers where possible, though riders have often reopened access points by removing or circumventing the barriers or creating new access points by leveling the grade of access between the town property and the site with shovels.
Mr. Pierre continues to produce footage and stills from exterior security cameras mounted to his home and from hand-held digital cameras showing the riders entering the site from Beachwood, angrily confronting the borough resident and riding up and down the paved borough path for bicyclists and walkers that runs parallel to Berkeley Avenue and the site. He has stated numerous times in the past that as a result of his proactive work against the riders, he and his family have been subjected to repeated verbal and property harassment and damage.
TOURING THE SITE
Entering the land is not recommended until the county has completed its purchase and it has produced information and guidelines on its allowable passive use by hikers, walkers and non-motorized bikes.
Surrounded by leafy, wooded footpaths along the Beachwood border, one can gain good vantage points for viewing what was so impressive about the land to the freeholders, as much of the edge is elevated several dozen feet above the ground level and provides a good look across the entire expanse.
Upon entering, a mix of soft, sandy paths wind around thousands of scrub pines and native flora, with lower marshy pits – many shrunken and hard to find due to the dry summer – containing a multitude of frogs, Lilly pads, cattails and slow-moving bumblebees. Abandoned illegal campfire sites from gatherings not long past can be found dotting the landscape, and ATV tracks mark most of the trails.
Heading west, the land flattens and rises, with wider, open land and gullies nearing the cerulean blue “Fisher’s Pit” area, where swimming is strictly forbidden, as warned by a pair of flotation buoys in the distance and evidenced by the drowning of a teenager in July 2013, who was unable to extract himself after jumping in among the steep and sandy banks.
A sort of natural bird sanctuary exists around the pit, with hundreds sitting and swarming among its shore and scrub bushes and trees, as hawks soar above. Through nearly the entire tract of land, in the hazy distance the rust-colored sheet metal shed of the 1920s sand pulverizing facility shimmers in the light, its screening tower standing tallest of all.
Turning south, one finds large, slowly rising piles of earth before another wide gully of water, and then a return to the east across the sandy land in the direction of Beachwood Elementary School, built in 1988 on the border and standing at the higher elevation of the rest of that borough.
To the north the ground becomes grassy to a strong line of trees and high dirt walls, blocking access at the old rail line, though a mid-point access provides the way onto its path and a view of the Johnson tract, the slowly deconstructing Beachwood Plaza and Route 9 in the distance, marking a return to development and everyday life.