EAST AMWELL TWP., N.J. — A proposed helistop at a golf course has local horsemen and others worried.
The Ridge At Back Brook is on a 300-acre property on Wertsville Road. The business has applied to the state Bureau of Aeronautics for the “restricted use helistop.” A public notice in early November sought comments from the public.
The Township Committee sent a letter on Jan. 22 stating the township’s “strong opposition” to the helistop. The contents of the letter reflect comments made at a special meeting in November, most which were in opposition and many in attendance were horse owners.
The surrounding lands include several horse farms and preserved land which has trails used by equestrians and hikers. The 200-member, Amwell Valley Trail Association, which maintains a 75-mile system of trails in the area, is opposed to the helistop, fearing for the safety of riders. They have a 50-foot easement that goes around the perimeter of the property. The trail easement was part of the original approval for the golf course.
At the November meeting, Amwell Valley Trail Association President, Patricia Buckwalter said that children use that trail and “it only takes one time for a horse to spook before someone gets really badly hurt.”
Another rider said the trail around the golf course is one of the busiest in the system.
The township is home to the Amwell Valley Hounds and members said they are also opposed. Cindy Hoogland Nance, one of the hunt masters, said she also has a farm a 1 ½ miles from the Trump golf course in Bedminster which frequently uses its helistop and there have been incidents with the horses. “I know people that have gotten hurt,” she said.
One resident that lives near the course said a police helicopter once landed at the course and he couldn’t catch his horses for several hours afterward.
However, then Deputy Fire Chief, Evan Van Gilson who is also a helicopter pilot and owns horses said that he has landed and taken off from his own pasture. He said his horses quickly acclimated to the helicopter. “We all know each horse is different. Some will not care. Some get spooked easily,” he said. He said he had his horses in a stall the first few times, then the next time let them out and “now they don’t care.”
In response to the letter and the horsemen’s concerns, course owner, Joel Moore, said via e-mail. “I have also heard other horse owners state that the horses quickly get familiar with the sounds of a helicopter and are not bothered or spooked. It should also be noted that when horses are on the various trails in the township that come within close proximity to public roads they are exposed to automobile, truck and motorcycle noise which does not seem to be an issue.”
According to meeting minutes, original plans for The Ridge called for just a “very exclusive” golf course when the project was proposed in 1998. The course was to be used only by members except for the occasional special tournament or events.
The planning board, at the time, agreed that a “passive” use golf course was better than the new homes being built on the property. Under the rules in place at the time, that could have been as many as 40 homes.
“In 1999, East Amwell was in the midst of a massive project to preserve farm land and open space. Carrying out this project required the Township to borrow and spend significant amounts of money.
It appears from the Planning Board minutes “that the Planning Board and the Township Committee saw The Ridge as a way to in effect preserve 300 acres of open space, without spending taxpayer dollars, and to get a sizable amount of revenue in the form of property taxes paid by the golf course. To achieve these objectives, the Planning Board appears to have bent over backwards to accommodate the requests of The Ridge,” Mayor Rick Wolfe said in a report posted on the township web site.
“In the years since the completion of construction of The Ridge, the golf course has been incrementally positioning itself to transition from a “pure” golf course to a country club — one that would be far more commercial in nature, and potentially far more burdensome on the residents and the environment, than the original incarnation approved by the Planning Board,” Wolfe said in his report.
A helipad was first proposed in late 2005. According to the Planning Board minutes from its Dec. 14, 2005 the option of flying in to the course would attract new members.
The planning board eventually rejected the application by a 4-2 vote, after what one internal memorandum referred to as “vehement public opposition.”
The Ridge applied to the Planning Board two more times for a helistop, and was rejected both times.
The township’s letter asks that the helistop be denied because of the potential detrimental impact on wildlife; the environment and the equestrians. At the November meeting, residents noted that there is a bald eagle nest nearby. There are also several streams, including the course’s namesake, the Back Brook, on and near the property. According to the letter, a crash and the resultant fuel spill could pollute the aquifer which provides drinking water to the township.
The Sourland Conservancy is also asking the NJ DOT to deny the helistop application and started an online position that has been signed by 1,293 people as of Feb. 8.
In the past the NJDOT has overridden planning board denials and has granted licenses despite public opposition. In Tewksbury Township the Johnson family’s application for a helistop was denied by the township but the state later granted the license. Equestrians testified in opposition to that application too.
The law was recently changed so applicants no longer had to go before the municipality for approval before seeking a license from the DOT. The Federal Aviation Administration already lists a helistop as existing at The Ridge. Federal approval is needed but the state must grant the license to operate. The Federal Aviation Administration already lists a helistop as existing at The Ridge.
If the state rejects the township’s arguments to outright deny the application, then the letter asks that several restrictions be placed on the license including how many times a helicopter many land and take off.
Moore said the helistop would operate only nine months of the year, during only daylight hours and with usage limited to an average of eight times per month (four landings and four takeoffs).
The state is to make a decision within 90 days of the application being deemed "complete," which was done in late November so a decision should be rendered by the end of February, Wolfe said.
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