Wyckoff completed the $3.1 million purchase of Russell Farms on Friday afternoon, according to Mayor Chris DePhillips.
"We just minutes ago finished the closing," DePhillips said Friday afternoon. "The township is now the owner."
"[Deputy Mayor] Rudy Boonstra and I both attended the closing. All appropriate documents were signed and the property is now officially owned by the township," DePhillips said. "This is an historic moment for the township."
The 5 acre parcel of open space joins another 5 acre parcel known as the Larkin House Park, donated by Helen Larkin, the 13 acre wildlife sanctuary known as the Gardens of Wyckoff donated by Warner W. “Bud” Brackett and the 18 acre Wyckoff Community Park donated by the Wyckoff Board of Education for active recreation.
With the addition of the Russell Farms property, the township’s inventory of open space increases to 288.95 acres from 283.95 acres or 6.74 percent of the township’s total land area.
"According to feedback we've received from the community we'd like to see it preserved and used for passive recreation," DePhillips said. "It will be a place you could take a walk or throw a Frisbee."
Deputy Mayor Rudy Boonstra said Friday that the township would now begin to repopulate the space with trees and greenery following a remediation process that removed much of the landscaping.
Committeeman Brian Scanlan Friday praised a group of individuals he said were instrumental in getting the ball rolling on funding and completing the purchase.
"Without the Friends of Wyckoff we wouldn't have had the Open Space Trust Fund, and you need to have a source of funding — the county will not fund an entire land purchase otherwise," Scanlan said.
The committeeman added that the Friends worked "very hard" to get the first Open Space Trust Fund referendum on the ballot in 2006.
Scanlan also praised Boonstra for making the initial proposal to preserve the Russell Farms property and lauded Township Administrator Bob Shannon for putting together the county grant application and shepherding Wyckoff through the process.
"[Shannon] has been on top of this from day one," Scanlan said.
Scanlan went on to laud Township Attorney Rob Landel, who "was very skillful in handling the very important negotiations and working with the land owners."
"It shows what people can do when they get behind something and really work hard to make it happen," Scanlan said.
Friends of Wyckoff Chair Linda Vreeland said Saturday that her group is pleased to have had a significant role in initiating the Open Space Trust Fund.
"We are also happy that public officials from both the county and state levels supported this purchase for Wyckoff," she added.
"These five acres will now not only become a park, it will represent the early farming life so prevalent in Wyckoff for 200 years," Vreeland said. "I personally have many memories buying apples and pumpkins at Russell Farms. It’s nice to know that this land will now be preserved for Wyckoff’s future generations."
To fund the purchase, the township was awarded and $1,204,000 from the municipal open space tax collected from Wyckoff taxpayers from January 1, 2007 through December 31, 2011. An additional $37,000 was appropriated from the township’s Capital Improvement Fund.
In the first influx of cash from the Open Space Trust Fund between 2006 and 2011, by charging residents a half cent per $1,000 of assessed property value which amounts to roughly $39 a year.
Last November, Wyckoff residents with 2,440 votes in favor to 963 against.
Some background on the property provided by The Township of Wyckoff:
In 1989 a “Mount Laurel Law Suit” was filed against Wyckoff by John Ambrose Development Company of Hawthorne to build condominiums behind the Brick House off of Ralph Avenue. The NJ Superior Court ordered re-zoning of 15 properties in Wyckoff, including Russell Farms, a five acre farm, for 19 high density condos. In 1998, the Township Committee pro-actively, based on the release of the second round of housing quotas from New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing, re-calculated its need and the Township Committee was successful in removing four sites from Mt. Laurel zoning, thereby saving four sites from high density zoning. Russell Farms was one of those sites.
In 2007, Cole & Burke Realty Investment, Inc. (the owners and prior operators of the farm property) entered into a contract to sell the five acre farm to Barrister Land Development Company to build homes. The contract purchaser, with the property owner’s consent, submitted an application to the Planning Board and successfully received approval to build six new single family homes on the five acre farm in February, 2008.
Due to the slump in the economy, the contract purchaser (Barrister Land Development Company) with the approval and consent of the farm owner (Cole & Burke Realty Investment, Inc.) then filed a complaint with the Council on Affordable Housing, challenging the township’s affordable housing plan with the purpose of building high density housing on the farm instead of the six single family homes as was approved by the Wyckoff Planning Board. It was at this point the Township considered purchasing Russell Farms to save it from overdevelopment.
The Township began negotiations in 2009, obtained the Bergen County Open Space Grant in 2010 and authorized the purchase on December 6, 2011. Since then the Township has required the Cole & Burke Realty Investment, Inc. and Barrister Land Development Company, the owners and the original contract purchaser, to perform a NJDEP compliant clean-up of the pesticide pollution. During this time, the Township Committee obtained two extensions from the Bergen County Open Space Program in order to maintain and secure the $1,859,000 open space grant.
The Township Committee also in the performance of its due diligence, contracted with its Environmental Consultant, Boswell Engineering, to review all environmental correspondence and procedures being performed. Two previously de-commissioned underground storage tanks used by the farmers to fuel their vehicles were identified and the Township required their removal. That removal process and the verification review of subsequent environmental tests resulted.
A No Further Action letter regarding the farmer’s pesticide contamination clean-up was issued by NJDEP on April 3, 2012. On April 19, 2012, the Township was advised by its Environmental Consultant that it may proceed with the closing because all relevant environmental testing had been completed and verified. On April 19, 2012, all negotiations with the sellers concerning all aspects of the purchase were completed and resolved.