Robbinsville Township took the first step in seizing ownership of nearly 160 acres of Miry Run Country Club, filing condemnation paperwork in New Jersey Superior Court Nov. 29.
The Sharon Road property, which includes a golf course, swimming pool and clubhouse, has sat idle since 2015. The filing starts the process of condemning 158 acres of the property, including all existing facilities. A 3-person commissioner board will determine whether the township’s filing is valid and its offer fair. A township appraisal values the land at $1.34 million.
If the commissioners accept that offer, the condemnation process is over, and the township will pay the property’s current owners, Spring Garden Country Club, Inc., the appraised value with money from the township open space fund. If the commissioners feel Robbinsville’s appraisal is too high or too low, they can adjust the price, a process that can take months.
The township plans “passive recreation” for the land. It could remain a golf course or be converted into a facility with walking paths, Frisbee golf or soccer golf, Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried said. The township will also consider converting the abandoned pool facilities at Miry Run into a township pool or splash park.
The remaining 30 of Miry Run Country Club’s 188 acres will act as a runway safety area for Robbinsville Airport, with ownership of that land staying with Spring Garden Country Club, Inc. The developer also owns the airport.
Negotiations with Spring Garden to buy the country club outright did not bear fruit, Fried said, leading the township no choice but to take the land through condemnation. But, before it could file the paperwork, the township had to hash out how much land to include as the airport buffer zone, causing further delay.
“I think most people are going to be happy it’s finally getting done,” he said. “It’s frustrating for some people how long these things take. But you also want to be really, really fair to property owners. You don’t want to use condemnation willy nilly. It’s something you should be thoughtful and deliberate about.”
Condemnation is relatively new tool for municipal governments to preserve open space. In December 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided, in a case between Mount Laurel and a developer called MiPro Homes, that municipalities have the statutory authority to condemn property for open space, if the condemnation is in the public interest. The case set a precedent that Robbinsville now has followed twice.
‘I don’t think the property owner had a good plan for the property.’
Normally, a municipality and developer will avoid condemnation by working together to settle on a price—just the threat of condemnation is enough. But it wasn’t in the case of Miry Run, just as it wasn’t in 2016 when the township condemned 225 acres on Robbinsville-Edinburg Road approved for a housing development called Washington Woods.
Negotiations for Washington Woods proved even more contentious than Miry Run, with the developer ordering construction on the housing developing to start in September 2016 despite not having the proper approvals from the township. Robbinsville Police responded to the construction site several times that month, writing summonses for violations to each of the crew members. Crews worked illegally for two weeks, clearing soybeans and topsoil, as well as removing trees at the back of the property.
The township has only just started to undo the damage, with Phase 1 of the Washington Woods restoration project beginning in late October 2018. The Phase 1 includes filling in excavated stormwater basins, redistributing stockpiled topsoil, installing soil seeding and stabilization, and the installation of soil erosion measures such as a silt fence and a stone riprap.
The fight between the township and developer continued even after Robbinsville filed for condemnation, with a dispute over Washington Woods’ value. It took six months before the court-appointed panel settled in July 2017 on a price of $8.7 million for 225 acres. The township appraisal had the land valued at $8 million.
Miry Run is different in a few ways. The land at Miry Run has a lower value because it is only zoned for a golf course. It doesn’t have approval to build residential buildings currently. And, unlike Washington Woods, the landowner has no active construction or even a plan for development in the near future on the property.
Still, the township feared the possibility of housing units on the land and moved to buy it. The funds will come from generated by a 1.5-cent increase of the municipal open space tax, a hike pitched to township residents in 2016 as a way to preserve Washington Woods and Miry Run Country Club. Township voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question on the issue in November 2016.
“You have to be really, really, really careful,” Fried said in September 2016 during the Washington Woods negotiations. “Other than roads, we just don’t do it. We’ve talked about doing it, even [in Foxmoor Shopping Center]. We’ve given Foxmoor lots and lots of time because, to me, when you take someone’s property, you’ve got to think long and hard about whether it’s the right thing to do. Does it really make sense? Is it really in the best interest of the community? It’s a slippery slope. Once you start, where do you stop? I’ve always tried to avoid it, and I would have preferred to avoid it here as well.”
The township did avoid using condemnation with Foxmoor Shopping Center, a fact Fried uses to bolster his claim that he doesn’t want to take land unless it’s the last resort.
Robbinsville officials had tried to negotiate to buy at least part of the Miry Run land as early as 2015. A few months after closing the club, Spring Garden approached the township to discuss other uses of the property, including construction of a new housing development or a senior housing complex in conjunction with a smaller golf course. This was despite the developer not having zoning approval to build residential units. Hoping to avoid the addition of more housing in town, the township started efforts to purchase Miry Run, rebuilding it as a municipal golf course. Tim McGough, then the township’s director of community development, said at the time he believed the revenue created by the course would offset the cost of land maintenance.
While the township negotiated to obtain the property, it watched as the developer worked to sell it from underneath them. In 2017, it appeared Spring Garden had worked out a deal with a developer for at least a portion of the Miry Run property. Titusville-based Sethi Development Corporation planned to take over 24 acres—including Miry Run’s clubhouse—and construct a large banquet hall there. The developer’s application to the Robbinsville Township Zoning Board generated a substantial amount of backlash from residents in the area, who cited traffic and noise concerns. In the face of the public outcry, Sethi pulled its application.
Since then, nothing much has been heard of Miry Run publicly. Fried said during his years of negotiating with Spring Garden, he got the sense the developer didn’t have a realistic goal for Miry Run’s land.
“I don’t think the property owner had a good plan for the property,” Fried said. “I don’t know the answer [to what they planned for the land].”