HLT Turns 25: Volunteers Band Together to Form Land Trust
During the quarter-century since its founding, Hunterdon Land Trust has thrived, becoming a robust organization that has preserved more than 10,000 acres in the Hunterdon County area. It has proven durable enough to adapt to the challenges of today – and tomorrow.
Throughout the year, we’ll be looking back at the significant events that helped shape HLT into the highly regarded, nationally accredited organization it has become. And we’ll look ahead toward our exciting plans for the future.
So, how did it all begin?
HLT owes its existence to a group of concerned citizens who revered our county’s rural heritage and loved it enough to care about its future. Back in 1996, they watched with deep concern as developers gobbled up farms, fields and many of our scenic landscapes. The feeling of inexorable loss grew; the loss of both place and experience that identifies us from one generation to the next. It’s what makes our heritage truly unique. And when we lose that special something that helps shape and define us, we lose something of ourselves. Having little sense of where we are, prevents us from truly knowing who we are.
Those concerned citizens sensed the loss and banded together, creating an organization to fight not only specific development projects, but also to work proactively to protect what is special about this place we call home. What they achieved demonstrates remarkable foresight.
Hunterdon County in the 1990s
Anyone flipping through a local newspaper in 1994 must have felt alarmed over the continual drumbeat of headlines: “Developer Seeks Larger Market, “Board Delays Hearing on 66-House Plan,” “County’s Housing Gain Is Largest in 4 Years.” The Thursday, Oct. 13 1994 Hunterdon County Democrat featured an article, part of a series, on how changes were threatening farms throughout the county. And, on page one, readers learned of a meeting to discuss a proposal to rezone Sergeantsville. About 200 residents flocked to Delaware Township’s planning board meeting, which was moved to the firehouse to accommodate the overflowing crowd.
Among the attendees was Roger Harris, who remembered in an interview a few years back. “Delaware Township was under a lot of pressure and a couple of things came together simultaneously that got people up in arms, myself included. There was a huge amount of development proposed for Sergeantsville and that’s when I started to notice the big problems.”
Harris then volunteered to serve on Delaware Township’s planning board where, he says, he “very quickly learned that it’s not easy to zone your way to preservation.” Harris recalled a land trust in his native Massachusetts; he and a number of others concerned about preserving land began meeting and researching. A phone call to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation helped Harris connect with residents from Kingwood, Readington and East Amwell. Among those involved early on were: Bill Rawlyk, John Mathieu, Tom McMillan, Alison Mitchell, Pam Thier, Barbara Wolfe, Ruth and Lloyd Gang, Sandra Madon, Julia Allen and Howard Parker.
This group shared their concerns on how continued development would affect our drinking water and air quality and that the loss of farmland, woodland, and country vistas was forever damaging our rural heritage.
They met several times, eventually forming a coalition, the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance, considering itself an alliance of smaller land trusts working together. This initial plan changed because the group incorporated as a single entity. (In 2008,“Alliance” was dropped officially from the name.)
The group conducted an incredible amount of research before drafting bylaws and incorporating in October 1996. Harris became the land trust’s first president.
The First Preservation
In the late 1990s, Dr. David and Peggy Dondero decided to preserve their 36-acre West Amwell farm and approached the D&R Greenway. The D&R Greenway, in turn, came to the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance and suggested partnering on the project.
“To us this was a great opportunity because we didn’t have any experience preserving land but here was an organization that did that was offering to work with us,” Harris said.
The Dondero Farm was an ideal property for the Land Trust’s first preservation effort. The farm dated back to 1750 and had once been the estate of Cornelius Coryell, who acted as a guide for George Washington during the American Revolution. The farm seemed the quintessential Hunterdon County property with its rolling hayfield, forest populated with specimen ash, oak, sycamore, maple and hickory and stone farmhouse and barn.
Working with D&R Greenway and the New Jersey Green Acres Program, the property was successfully preserved.
The deal was announced in the spring of 1999.