FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved a $112,415 historic preservation grant for the local nonprofit Hunterdon Land Trust, allocated toward rehabilitation and restoration of the bank barn structure at the Dvoor Farm.

The funds come in support of the wide-ranging capital campaign underway for the Hunterdon Land Trust’s continued work on the iconic Dvoor Farm property, just outside Flemington’s downtown. The bank barn, the largest barn on the property, faces Old Croton Road.

The Land Trust is headquartered at the historic Dvoor Farm campus, which features historic barns and outbuildings, and is known as one of the “gateway properties” to Flemington.

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On March 10, the Hunterdon Land Trust was awarded its renewed accreditation from the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission.

It was noted then that, following its incorporation as a nonprofit and early efforts nearly 25 years ago, HLT worked to preserve 9,713 acres in Hunterdon County. Another 31 acres was added to this total with another freeholder board approval Sept. 1, as Hunterdon County Senior Planner Bill Millette presented a resolution for an Open Space Acquisition Assistance Grant of $155,000 for Hunterdon Land Trust for its acquisition of the 31-acre Fitzgerald property in Readington Township.

Freeholder John Lanza noted that this open space purchase comes weeks after the county freeholders approved other key land preservation initiatives. At their Aug. 18 meeting, the board authorized a $300,000 Open Space purchase of the 40-acre property known as Stanton Manor in Readington Township, at the intersection of Route 31 and Stanton Station Road, along the banks of the Raritan River.

Lanza congratulated Millette, as well as the volunteer county Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee, “for again arranging all the pieces and ensuring that everyone involved comes out a winner.”

“With the Fitzgerald property, here is another instance where the county can achieve open space preservation in collaboration with a long-time and valued partner with the nonprofit Hunterdon Land Trust, and with a funding partner in the states Green Acres program, all toward preserving this Readington Township property,” Lanza said. “Readington is a winner as the township gains a 31-acre local park near downtown Whitehouse Station. The environment is a winner with the protection of lands near the Chambers Brook, and our Hunterdon County taxpayers are winners with the Green Acres program covering 50 percent of the acquisition costs while the county is providing the other 50 percent from the county’s Open Space Trust Fund.”

Hunterdon Land Trust provided the county with an update outlining its organizational and regional economic development goals to improve the historic Dvoor Farm property. Those goals include sensitively rehabilitating the barns to create event spaces for public and private use, including an educational center; adding safer ways to enter, exit and move about the property; adding amenities like restrooms and signs; and improving the farm’s natural resources with better stormwater management strategies, restoring pollinator meadows and rejuvenating the old-growth forest.

So far, Hunterdon Land Trust has raised a little over $2 million toward its ultimate goal of $3 to $3.5 million to reinvigorate the historic farm. The preservation grant from the county government continues the capital campaign’s mission for pursuing revenues from the venue.

“HLT has worked tirelessly to maximize the Dvoor Farm for public use, creating a place where the past, present and future merge, where families and friends can make new memories celebrating life’s milestones or enjoy an array of educational or recreational activities,” said the land trust’s director of outreach Dave Harding. “HLT has focused on raising the necessary funds to achieve our shared vision of the farm’s future,”

Catherine Suttle, a visual artist and painter who lives in Frenchtown and works as Hunterdon Land Trust’s Director of Cultural Resources explained the project’s scope with her oversight from Hunterdon Land Trust and working step-by-step with the team. A project engineer and construction management reps with guidance from the Dvoor Farm project architect, Flemington-based preservation architect Chris Pickell, a board member of the Hunterdon County Historical Society.

“The bank barn is the largest barn on the property, and it will be rehabilitated to become an event space and venue,” Suttle said. “We anticipate that it will have a capacity of between 200 and 250 people inside.”

The New Jersey Historic Trust, which is housed under the State Department of Consumer Affairs, has been an integral partner in the Hunterdon Land Trust’s efforts.

“The New Jersey Historic Trust has taken on the role as liaison between HLT and the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO, housed under the NJDEP),” Suttle said. “SHPO put the Dvoor Farm on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, and then it was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places listing, which it received about 11 years ago. The Historic Trust expressed interest in our project as we are a land trust, not the typical organization doing historic preservation project work, but we do this with relevance to our mission, and we recognize the benefits in both historic and land preservation.”

Work was originally planned to start this fall, but the pandemic set things back. A total timeline for rehabilitation work on the barn is estimated at nine to 12 months and, as of September 2020, the timeline has shifted to a 2022 completion date.

The current zoning of the Dvoor Farm under Raritan Township zoning code allows the planned use for the facility, and Suttle noted the great support and communication offered to date from municipal government and members of the Raritan Township executive staff.

“We will have to pursue site plan approval, and as the township knows that is ahead they have been helpful in discussing the process,” she said. “Raritan Township has been great, very supportive of us all along.”

With new safety protocols, masks, gloves and physical distancing measures in place, the Hunterdon Land Trust has continued to operate its biweekly outdoor farmers markets at the Dvoor Farm, open to the public on alternating Sundays every month, since March. According to Suttle, since its beginning at the Dvoor Farm, Raritan Township was very supportive of starting up the operations on-site and working with HLT on permitting and approvals.

Even at the onset of pandemic impacts in mid-March, the market continued, and served as a valuable resource for food shopping and distribution as well as carrying on of local commerce. Without markets, many farmers’ sales would have gone dormant and potentially shut down key parts of Hunterdon County’s agribusiness.

“Attendance at HLT Farmers’ Markets has been really strong this year,” Suttle said. “We have early senior citizens’ shopping at the Sunday markets; all attendees are required to wear a mask; we only allow 50 people into the market at a time; and lines are marked on the ground so patrons can remain at least six feet apart while they wait to buy from our vendors. We are managing it to be very safe for everyone and the Land Trust and our vendors have received positive feedback from customers. Many said they feel safe there and they are glad the market is open. But without enough space and distance for seated audiences or gathering of groups, we have not held many of our staple education programs or history lectures during the farmers market in 2020.”

Music performances at the Dvoor Farm HLT Market were also halted for this year, as Suttle said that while the acts are welcome attractions due to the pandemic, the Land Trust and its vendors did not want to encourage gatherings.

“That’s what the music and our lectures or events were for, providing people with some entertainment, encouraging them to stay, sit and eat and enjoy all we have to offer,” she said. “Our picnic areas are not set up this year as we must limit the number of total people within the market area. Unfortunately it’s more shop-and-go because of pandemic regulations.”

With its capital campaign, other improvements HLT plans for on-site at the Dvoor Farm will include a better parking area as the grass lawn is used for the biweekly farmers’ markets as well as better ingress and egress for the property. The traffic circle, technically in Raritan Township, has proven to be dangerous for many drivers accessing the property.

The property’s parking improvement project needs to address the muddy conditions “with something ecologically sound that can make the parking area more stable,” Suttle noted. If the capital campaign results in enough funding, HLT plans to move the entrance to the Dvoor Farm away from the Route 12 circle, which would include presenting the NJDOT and Raritan Township with a traffic study.

“We hope to move the entrance further west to Old Croton Road but still closer than the Old Grove Forest,” she said. “We need to present studies to make sure that entry is appropriate.”

The HLT Farmers Markets and its programs have proven to attract visitors and customers from farther away than central Hunterdon County. Suttle said several Mercer and Somerset County residents attend, as do people from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The farm property features walking paths along scenic greenery, and HLT maintains the grounds.

“We are still building that audience, and we do see that the audience for history and historic preservation/place-making programs has some overlap with the environmental mission of the Hunterdon Land Trust,” Suttle said. “There are multiple audiences and age ranges that can be involved, and the Dvoor Farm offers a combination of those things. Over time, we plan on improving the environmental conditions and providing better access to the Dvoor Farm’s historic buildings. While we celebrate the Dvoor Farm site’s history, we are presenting activities to enhance the environment and we can also make this more interesting to people for passive recreation on site.”

Suttle and Harding said that the land trust’s farmers market is in line with Hunterdon County Economic Development objectives to draw audiences and commerce to area sites. The Hunterdon Land Trust Farmers Market already has a $3 million annual impact on nearby communities.

“Increasing public use of the Dvoor Farm will certainly grow that,” Harding said. “Plus, the public, local businesses and community organizations can all utilize the barns, which are currently used by a tenant.”

The upkeep and historic preservation of visible barns just off Route 12, across from the Raritan Township municipal complex, has hidden appeal in the efforts for land preservation and natural resource management. In 2008, Hunterdon Land Trust initiated a stream preservation project at the Dvoor Farm by reestablishing two acres of wetlands on the property.

There is another project the land trust anticipates working on with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) within the two years ahead.

“We are looking to continue that stream restoration project all the way from the farm to the Mine Street bridge,” Suttle said. “When there is flooding, the stream tends to flash-flood and much soil gets into it, and it runs downstream and pollutes stormwater and debris into the Raritan River, ultimately. We are constantly trying to improve the environmental aspects on the property and improve the habitat for the wildlife.”

The two entities (HLT and NCRS) will combine forces with the North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development on a plan to improve stormwater management by continuing to strengthen the bank and facilitate the absorption of flood waters from Walnut Brook. Natural resource restoration work on the farm also resulted in the removal of about 8 acres of invasive Callery pear trees, replacing them with 200 native trees and shrubs to improve the Walnut Brook’s riparian buffer.

“It is important to note that achieving the preservation of the properties takes great skill on the part of the county’s team, including county planning and land use staff,” Lanza said.

Lanza credited the various landowners who have joined Hunterdon County and nonprofit partners in “working toward the goal of preservation rather than development.”

“That makes us all winners,” he said.