Marie Verna has lived in her comfortable house tucked among the protected species and preserved lands at the foot of Baldpate Mountain for nearly 25 years. She regards it as a magical place; her own small slice of heaven.
“When I talk to my friends who don’t get to live in a place like this, I tell them that it is this way because the people here really respect the land and the peace,” she said recently.
Verna explained that now that sense of peace is threatened by an effort to renovate an historic Titusville farmstead into a eco-tourism friendly “boutique hotel” on Fiddler’s Creek Road near Route 29.
The contentious proposal reached a full boil at two jam-packed Zoning Board hearings to vet the new owner’s application for a “use variance,” which seeks special permission to allow the operation of a hotel on the environmentally sensitive and highly protected land in the Mountain Resource Conservation district. The dispute over the application has gotten ugly, pitting neighbor against neighbor; raising questions about the motives of local politicians; casting doubt on the integrity of open space advocates; and dividing environmentalists over the impact of the development.
“It just feels so out of control,” Verna said.
The new owner of the property, Margot Stern, has said she envisions a serene and environmentally-conscious retreat — The Hopewell — that would draw people living in New York and Philadelphia as a respite from the noise and stress of city life.
She proposes transforming the 24-acre property with its 6,600 square foot house, three rental cottages, and an enormous barn into a 27-room hotel with a 30-seat restaurant, a small workout and spa space, and a pool. She likened it to a small inn or a bed-and-breakfast, but said she chose not to characterize it that way for marketing purposes and because it will have a manager rather than a live-in owner. The protected environment, hiking trails, and preserved forests will be a draw for guests just as it is for residents.
Her proposal has been mischaracterized, she said, by neighbors trying to use “scare tactics” to stir up opposition. “This isn’t a multi-story, Marriott-type hotel,” she told the Zoning Board last week.
Stern has spent more than six hours before the Zoning Board fielding questions ranging from the engineering details of her proposal to how she will protect hotel guests from bears and bees on the land. She will appear again before the Zoning Board January 18 with traffic, water, sewer and other experts who were part of her application.
Opponents of the proposal remain skeptical. “I absolutely do not believe her,” said John Mastrosimone, a local realtor and developer who lives a mile or so up Fiddler’s Creek Road from the site. “This is a profit-motivated, money-making scheme to come into an area that doesn’t want her and doesn’t need her.”
Mastrosimone has collected more than 400 signatures on a digital petition since early November demanding that the Zoning Board reject Stern’s application. He believes the Board would have quietly approved the application at its November 2 meeting, had it not had to cancel the hearing because of “deficiencies” in posting proper legal public notice of the meeting.
“If notice had been properly published, that thing would have been approved with nobody in the room,” Mastrosimone says.
Neither the Chair nor the Vice chair of the Zoning Board responded to requests for comment outside the Board meetings, which were held remotely. Efforts to reach them through the Township staff also were rebuffed: “The Zoning Board and its officers cannot speak on any pending applications for legal reasons,” Reba Holley, the Township’s communications and outreach manager, said.
Mastrosimone said residents of the area only learned of the application through the grapevine. Because the Township ordinance only requires notifying neighbors within 200 feet of the property involved in variance applications, Verna was the only neighbor to receive formal notification.
“It was legal, but, in fairness, somebody should have notified the other neighbors for such a huge change in the way the property is going to be used,” Mastrosimone said.
Not all of the neighbors on Fiddler’s Creek Road oppose the application.
Michael Markulec, who lives not far from Mastrosimone and is a former mayor of the Township, said that Stern’s proposal for The Hopewell is in line with what the Township envisioned when it purchased the area surrounding Hollystone Manor for open space.
“Similar projects like the Hopewell Valley Winery and Glenmoore Farm demonstrate how the community benefits from commercial development that is environmentally and historically integrated with our rich agricultural history.” Markulec told the Hopewell Express.
Neither is there universal agreement among environmental and open-space advocates about the impact of the hotel.
The Washington Crossing Audubon Society has been the most vocal in objecting to the application, citing Hollystone’s location in the Baldpate Mountain Important Bird Area (IBA) and over concerns that increased traffic will pose a threat to turtles and amphibians crossing the road from habitats in the wetlands-connected pond on the property.
The hotel “will increase human disturbance of environmentally sensitive species and habitats that are already on the edge,” Jim Myers, the group’s president, said. “The Baldpate IBA, which includes Hollystone, is too fragile for this large a project.”
Stern said that, even before submitting her application, she consulted with many environmental advocates, including the D & R Greenway Land Trust and Wild Bird Research Group. She also insisted that she is committed to preserving and maintaining the land as part of her business model, which relies on interacting with a pristine environment as a major draw for hotel guests. She said her renovation plans include removing invasive tree species and replacing them with native plants, as well as rebuilding a pond on the property to include a wildlife shelf that will benefit the population of turtles and amphibians.
“We are working with experts.” Stern said. “This is important to us.”
Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FoHVOS), which manages the easement on the property as part of the Fiddler’s Creek Preserve, has declined to take a position or speak about the application beyond a written statement attributed to its board. The statement reads: “FoHVOS’ interest is limited to the easement it holds on the property and it will enforce its legal interests to the extent allowable by law. To the extent it responds to the Sterns’ request for guidance on environmental impact and best stewardship practices, FoHVOS’ input is consistent with that which it provides to any Township resident or landowner seeking such information.”
Verna says she doesn’t question Stern’s motives: “I’ve never even met her.” But she is concerned about the future of Fiddler’s Creek Road.
An increase in traffic on the roads and trails, especially among dirt bikes, worries her. The number of people driving up to Strawberry Hill Mansion (FoHVOS’ headquarters’ office) seems to be growing and the gate, meant to control access during off hours, is sometimes just left open. She’s called the County, which owns Bald Pate Mountain several times about it. And people themselves don’t seem as scrupulous about following the posted hours and clearing out before dusk.
“I remember when I bought the house, the realtor said to me ‘you will never have to worry about someone building behind you [because it is preserved land],” Verna said.
Now, her concerns about encroachment onto her idyllic patch seem to be right in front of her, just across the road, in the form of a boutique hotel.
Feature photo: Fiddlers Creek Preserve, photo credit Richard Grant for NJ Trails.org
Edited at 10:16am January 14 to correct spelling of Baldpate and to correct the date of the next scheduled Zoning Board meeting.
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