HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - Two large pieces of Hunterdon County land are being preserved, ensuring that bucolic and natural settings along the headwaters of the Wickecheoke Creek last for many decades to come.

In Raritan Township, 48 acres along the Wickecheoke Creek, in areas known as havens for birds and wildlife, have been permanently preserved as public open space with contributions and an official partnership between Hunterdon County, Raritan Township, the nonprofit New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the state Green Acres Program and the New Jersey Water Supply Authority. This multi-entity partnership purchased the land for $315,800 on July 1 from the family of the late Warren Etzel, who passed away in 2018 after owning and operating Etzel’s Store in Croton, along the border between Raritan and Delaware townships, for many years.

Funding for the Etzel property acquisition came from a Green Acres grant to Raritan Township and a Hunterdon County Open Space Fund grant to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. The New Jersey Water Supply Authority contributed to acquisition-related costs like surveys and appraisals for the parcel.

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In a July 23 statement, Raritan Township Mayor Jeff Kuhl said the municipality is “again proud and thankful” to join in partnership with Green Acres, Hunterdon County, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, “in preserving clean water and property along the Wickecheoke Creek.”

“There is little to no money used from our taxpayers and open space fund, which allows us to preserve more,” Kuhl said in his statement.

“This beautiful property protects water quality in the Wickecheoke Creek, and will be a wonderful place to walk and observe nature,” said Michele S. Byers, executive director of New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “We are very grateful to our partners for making the permanent preservation of this land possible.”

In Hunterdon County, the Wickecheoke Creek flows into the Delaware and Raritan (D & R) Canal, a central/western New Jersey “belt” waterway and transit route that operated from 1834 through 1932 between Philadelphia and New York City, serving each market, supporting local agriculture and families and spurring development in several small New Jersey villages and towns along its footprint. The D & R Canal currently serves as a major drinking water source for over 1 million New Jerseyans and as integral to a New Jersey recreational resource, the D & R Canal State Park.

The New Jersey Water Supply Authority operates with easements, projects and management practices over sites along the D&R Canal.

The Conservation Foundation (NJCF) stated that in addition to protecting water quality, preserving the Etzel property reduces stormwater flooding downstream and protects food sources for the creek’s fish population.

More county funding for preserving lands adjacent to the Wickecheoke Creek was on the horizon, though this time for farmland preservation. With a resolution unanimously approved July 21, the county freeholder board approved an Open Space Acquisition Assistance grant in an amount not to exceed $407,289 to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, following the recommendation of the county’s Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee, for acquisition of an agricultural easement for the property (approximately 64 acres) in Delaware Township.

Remaining funding for the Agricultural easement on the 64-acre property is being provided to NJCF by the New Jersey Agricultural Development Committee, through their nonprofit program providing 50 percent matching funds.

During the freeholder board meeting, an update on farmland and open space preservation was delivered by Carrie Fellows, a director in the Department of Planning and Land Use and executive director of the county’s Division of Culture & Heritage.

“The NJCF proposes to fund the (Delaware Township Curtis tract) purchase of the farmland easement, as this is the last unpreserved farm in the Rosemount Valley along Hunterdon County Road (CR) 604,” she said. "In their recommendations to county planning and land use, the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee recognized the importance of preserving this key piece of land along the creek, also noting that this property would be most productive if it remains in private ownership. As such, the committee supports its preservation through the acquisition of an agricultural easement.”

In her report, Fellows noted the potential for trails and connections to them to be expanded and enhanced with the preservation of parcels.

“The committee requested that NJCF negotiate a public access trail easement along the southwestern side of the Curtis property, however this idea was not acceptable with the current landowner and the current landowner wishes to sell the property post-farmland preservation designation,” she said. “NJCF will work with the next landowner on a possible access agreement, as they have the adjoining land along the Wickecheoke Creek and it’s a very popular destination for walkers, hikers, birdwatchers and horseback riders for passive use. The committee noted the parcel's adjacency to already-preserved land, notably farmland, and possible expansion of an existing trail network in the area.”

Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren said the New Jersey Conservation Foundation has proven it's a willing partner in the conservation of Hunterdon County.

“As we greatly appreciate the foundation’s help in shepherding through the preservation of these 64 farm acres, the beautiful viewscape in the Rosemont Valley will now be 100 percent preserved,” he said. “The Curtis property is the final farm in this area to be preserved. We are also appreciative of the giving of 50 percent of the cost of its preservation from the state Agricultural Development Committee. Having such partnerships in land preservation helps to extend the Hunterdon County Open Space Fund that much further and makes more preservation possible in the future.”

The 48 acres of open space in Raritan Township is a former farm that was owned by the Etzel family since the 1930s. Over many years, the land regenerated and has slowly reverted to forest. It’s now mostly wooded area.

This land contains wetlands and meadows, foraging habitat for great blue herons and bald eagles, and its plentiful cardinal flower plants attract ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Old hunting trails crossing the property provide the framework for a future trail system for the public, and the county Department of Planning and Land Use noted the potential for clearer trail connections. The former Etzel tract is bounded by Old Croton, Sam Levine and Rake roads, and it sits across the street from the 21-acre preserved Levine property.

Hunterdon County Freeholder John Lanza commented on both parcels being preserved -- the 48 acres in Raritan Township as Open Space and the 64 acres in Delaware Township as farmland/agricultural.

“The protection of the habitat and watershed surrounding the Wickecheoke Creek serves only to enhance Hunterdon County’s environmental health and character,” he said. “The Wickecheoke Creek has long been a target for preservation by New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and Hunterdon County is a proud partner in furthering those efforts with the preservation of the Etzel property.”

Within Raritan Township, the Etzel property is immediately downstream from several other New Jersey Conservation Foundation preserved properties, including the Levine, Hollenback, Davino, Orbach, Turnquist and Huey properties. The Conservation Foundation noted that all these parcels are part of the Wickecheoke Creek Preserve, a 3,800-acre patchwork of open space and farmland surrounding the Wickecheoke Creek and its tributaries.

Lanza is also the county board’s liaison to the Department of Planning and Land Use. He spoke about the long process in securing the 64 acres of farmland that’s being preserved in Delaware Township.

“I love all 26 Hunterdon County municipalities, but the lands along the Wickecheoke Creek in the Rosemont Valley have been a target for preservation for a long time,” he said. “The goal preexisted my time on this freeholder board. The fact is that a Farmland Preservation easement for the (64-acre) property really is fantastic and this piece represents the very last farm in this area to be preserved.”  

“We truly appreciate our partners in preserving these parcels as the NJCF is an invaluable partner in preserving lands all across Hunterdon County,” he added. “We thank our county staff, including in planning and land use, as they’ve done a tremendous job in locking down the parcel.”

Martha Sullivan Sapp, director of the New Jersey Green Acres Program, added that the Garden State’s Green Acres Program is excited to be part of this important public/private partnership to protect the headwaters of the Wickecheoke Creek in Raritan Township.

“This collaborative acquisition demonstrates the ongoing commitment of public agencies and private land conservancies, such as the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, to preserve these critical watershed lands as well as provide important public access to our natural environment,” she said.

For more information about the Wickecheoke Creek Preserve in Hunterdon County and to view its trail maps, go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org/preserve/wickecheoke-creek-preserve/.