December 2, 2020

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of a Key Preservation Effort

HIKING THE TRAIL: Many walkers at the St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell Township are unaware that, if not for the efforts of D&R Greenway and generous donors, more than 1,000 houses and a shopping center could have been built on the site.

By Anne Levin

From 1896 until 1973, a brick Victorian orphanage sat on a large expanse of farm fields and forest at the edge of the town of Hopewell. The St. Michael’s Orphanage and Industrial School was demolished after it closed, but the land lay dormant for decades until the threat of development propelled D&R Greenway into action.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the ambitious preservation project, which prevented what could have been the construction of 1,050 houses and a 30,000-square-foot shopping center. An overlook with sweeping views of the town’s landscape; a meadow seeded with wildflowers; eight acres of victory gardens that source healthy food; the “raising” of a new, working barn; and six miles of trails are among the features that made the long, expensive effort worth doing. The D&R Greenway Land Trust bought the site from the Catholic Diocese of Trenton for $11 million, securing $8 million in public funds and $3 million in gifts from 900 individuals. Another $1 million was raised for maintenance and preservation.

The land trust was approached for this project because of previous successes in saving large regional properties such as The Institute for Advanced Study land, Coventry Farm, and Greenway Meadows.

“I always knew this was a really important piece of land for the community,” said Linda Mead, CEO and president of D&R Greenway. “But I’m always amazed by the things that grow out of the preservation of land, how that impacts people’s lives. I’ve seen it over and over again.”

Mead was especially moved by the people who had lived at the orphanage and returned as a group. “They found positive feelings about the land again,” she said. “Josephine Allen is probably the best example of that, because she came back to the property, and had all these positive interactions with people that brought back memories of connecting with nature and going beyond any of the trauma. There are others for whom that’s the case, too.”

Naturalists have appreciated the four plant communities on the St. Michaels Farm Preserve: agricultural, shrub/scrub, hedgerows, and forest. Birders regularly visit the site and have tallied nearly 100 species, according to a press release from the land trust. “The list includes 11 species of warbler, vivid Indigo bunting, and spring’s dazzling rose-breasted grosbeak and scarlet tanager,” it reads. “A pair of harriers cruise these fields in quest of voles and mice. American kestrels live in boxes tailored to their needs and installed by D&R Greenway, as do purple martins and bluebirds. Near the vintage barn, both a great blue and a little green heron have been seen along its nearby creek.”

This past spring, the preserve was the site of efforts to address food insecurity caused by the pandemic. Victory gardens, planted in the field above the vintage red barn, grew food in 32 plots, which were 10 feet apart to accommodate social distancing. Seven of the plots were set aside for charity, and tomatoes, squash, lettuce, potatoes, and other fresh vegetables were provided to up to 60 local families in need.

“When we first preserved the land, we thought there would be an opportunity for these gardens. We reached out, but we didn’t get much response,” said Mead. “But this year, with the pandemic, it seemed like the right time. There are concerns about food insecurity, and this group of gardeners came together. Many of them didn’t know each other, but the experience of gardening up on the hill, with that big view, has created this whole sense of belonging. They have loved being out there. Some have felt it was therapy for them – just being part of that community, digging in the dirt, and growing vegetables created such a great sense of well-being during a difficult time.”

Mead has held several meetings outside at the preserve. She enjoys observing people who hike the trails. “There are people who walk there every day,” she said. “I can tell they are friends, or family units, or couples, and it’s their daily routine. I was out there right before Thanksgiving. The sun came out after it had been raining, and all these people were talking to each other. There was just such a sense of joy. You would not know you were in the middle of a pandemic.”

What strikes Mead when she talks to the walkers and hikers is that many have no idea what went into the preservation of the land. “They don’t realize it is owned by D&R Greenway. They think it’s just a public park,” she said. “They don’t seem to be aware that it could have been a thousand houses. I want them to understand the importance of preserving land, and that it is something worth doing. When you get to the other side, it is something that is wonderful and impactful. After 10 years, to now see people enjoying it, it was absolutely worth doing, many times over.”