BERNARDS TWP., NJ _ The Somerset County Park Commission and county Freeholders are working together to meet their "mutual intention" of reopening the now-closed Lord Stirling horseback riding stable, but "in some fashion that makes sound fiscal sense," according to a release issued on Monday by the county park commission.

The county freeholders and park commission, which operates the stable where many local horse lovers learned to ride over the last 50 years, have been facing intense questioning, including a petition, from the stable's equestrians and other concerned residents since the sudden closure this spring of the stable property at 256 S. Maple Ave. in Basking Ridge. The release emphasized the county has no intention of selling the permanently preserved county parkland.

"First and foremost, a decision has never been made to close the stable permanently," Monday's release said. The release said that the programs at the stable were suspended in response to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, as were schools, businesses and many other facilities in the New York area.  

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No consideration given to selling Lord Stirling property, county says

The release also stated flatly that, "There is neither a plan in place nor has any consideration been given to selling the Lord Stirling property to any third party—including, most notably, a developer."

The county's release pointed out that most of the property at the stable was purchased in 1967 under the Green Acres park program and with other regional land conservation funds that were contingent upon keeping the property as parkland or preserved land.

"Today, the entirety of 1,105 acres that comprise Lord Stirling Park are listed on Somerset County’s Recreation and Open Space Inventory, and, as such, the property is encumbered by and subject to the N.J. Green Acres rules which are overseen and enforced by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres Program," the release said. The stable and nearby Environmental Education Center were also purchased by the funding from the North Jersey Conservation Foundation (now known as New Jersey Conservation Foundation), and the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.  

"It is rare when a diversion of Green Acres-encumbered parkland occurs, and the process for doing so is exceptionally arduous." the release said. "To be certain, however, there is no intention of applying for diversion approval" and changing the use of land for park, the park commission's release emphasized.

In response to the sudden closure of the stable, the sale of many horses and reduction in staff, Basking Ridge resident, Sharon Vopal, launched an online petition to save the stable as a public riding facility.  “We were told that a few of the horses were placed in the Retirement Program, run by the Friends of Lord Stirling (FLSS) and already had new homes, others were sold back to the dealer from where they came and most of those had already been sold by the dealer. There used to be 60 to 70 lesson horses,” Vopel told TAP Into Basking Ridge last month. 

This month, residents Sophia Chadda and Jon Sandler sent letters to the county Board of Freeholders expressing concern that "the stable was closed without notice to county residents, and that the decision was made without public debate or transparency. "

 "It is unequivocally agreed that the presence of horses in the stable’s pastures is a securely knit fabric which has facilitated the establishment of Somerset County’s exemplary quality of life," said Monday's release regarding the stable's future.  

"In operation for more than five decades, Lord Stirling Stable, located in the Baking Ridge section of Bernards Township, has offered a variety of riding activities for riders of most ages and skill levels," the release continued. "The Stable is one of the many jewels in the park system stewarded by the Somerset County Park Commission and funded in large measure by the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders."  

Monday's release was supposedly issued because the Park Commission and the Freeholder Board "have recently been made aware of and wish to dispel a myriad of rumors relating to Lord Stirling Stable."

The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic and the resulting mandated restrictions to ensure the safety of both staff members and the public have had a very profound impact on the Somerset County Park Commission—the entirety of the Commission and not just the Lord Stirling Stable, according to the park commission. 

"Park Commissioners, senior management and staff have been forced to make some very difficult decisions over the last four months," the release continued. "Facilities were closed and programming was canceled in order to either comply with Governor Murphy’s many Executive Orders or endeavor to ensure the financial survival of the Park Commission for the balance of 2020."

Initially, to help alleviate the financial burden that the stable presented when the pandemic began, the number of lesson horses in the herd was reduced and staffing was cut to the minimum possible, the release said.

Financially, 'no other option' but to sell lesson herd, according to park commission

However, "Despite those measures and the day-to-day effort of the stable’s management and staff to reduce costs, the expenses at the stable continue to be substantial and the deficit continues to increase. The difficult decision to disperse the remainder of the lesson herd was made. Financially there was no other option."  

The hiring of seasonal and part-time employees was restricted, and the halting or reduction of the park commission's operations during the pandemic has had "an extreme effect on the financial  well-being of the park commission," the release said.

The release admitted that the loss of revenue experienced will undoubtedly result in long-lasting aftereffects on the park commission.

The plan at Lord Stirling Stable as is the plan at many of the commission’s other facilities is to “hibernate” for the balance of 2020, accord to the release.

The release said the stable already had been consistently operating at a significant loss, and "the Commission cannot afford to do much else," the release said. "The plan has never been to close the Stable permanently," but t suspend programs, according to the park commission.

Currently, there are 30 horses boarded at Lord Stirling, the release said. As the stable’s loyal ridership knows well, many of those horses were previously a part of the commission’s lesson herd, the release said. 

The release said that since January of this year—even before the pandemic hit in March _ park commission staff and senior management, as well as park commissioners and county representatives, have been meeting as a committee in order to explore alternatives to address the "financial challenges" that the stable presents.

Seeking 'financially prudent plan' to reopen Lord Stirling

"While one option could be to cease stable operations, the committee quickly and unanimously dismissed same and is now focused on a financially prudent plan of reopening Lord Stirling Stable," the release said.  

"Much like the pandemic itself, the recent events at Lord Stirling Stable are indeed emotional since riders have attachments to the horses, and therefore can be difficult to understand and embrace," the release said, reiterating that the freeholders and park commission are working "their very hardest to ensure that a herd of horses will continue to roam Lord Stirling’s pastures," and that programs will resume.

Information of Park Commission programs and activities may be found online at www.somersetcountyparks.org or by calling 908-722-1200.