Posted on Thu, Aug. 14, 2003

N.J. conservation group to buy big Pinelands tract

The 9,400 acres will be sold for $12 million by one of the largest cranberry operations in the country.
By Frank Kummer
Inquirer Staff Writer

A $12 million deal to buy and preserve one of the largest privately held tracts of land not just in the Pine Barrens but in all of New Jersey is nearly complete.

The nonprofit group New Jersey Conservation Foundation announced yesterday that it has exercised an option to buy 9,400 acres of mostly pristine forest and lakes in the heart of the Pinelands under an agreement once beset by fund-raising problems and a lawsuit.

But now settlement is scheduled for November on the tract owned by A.R. DeMarco Enterprises, the third largest cranberry operation in the country. It is run by J. Garfield DeMarco.

"I would say that is as close to being sealed as possible," DeMarco said yesterday. "The next step is closing."

The foundation exercised the option July 31, but it took several weeks to legally notify the parties.

"We have gone under contract, so the uncertainty as to whether we are going to go ahead or not is gone," said Michele Byers, the foundation's executive director.

The deal would transfer a land mass of 14 square miles, almost the size of Moorestown, and open at least part of it by 2005 to hikers, bird-watchers, and the otherwise curious.

The land sprawls across Woodland, Tabernacle and Bass River Townships in Burlington County. The property has 1,500 acres of reservoirs and thousands of acres of wetland and upland forests, including 600 acres of Atlantic white cedar swamp.

It connects five state-owned properties: Brendan T. Byrne State Forest (formerly Lebanon State Forest), Wharton State Forest, Bass River State Forest and Penn State Forest, and the Greenwood Wildlife Management Area.

Fourteen tributaries of the West Branch of the Wading River originate on or pass through the property, which is a habitat for the federally endangered bald eagle and the threatened Pine Barrens tree frog, the foundation said.

The plan to buy the parcel, which DeMarco had agreed to sell for half of its appraised value, was announced in November.

DeMarco, 65, former chairman of the Burlington County Republican Party, said he hoped to get out of the cranberry business, which has been in his family since the 1940s.

He said years of low cranberry prices have made it unprofitable to continue, though he can harvest on the land until 2005 under the agreement.

He shares control of the business with a brother, Mark, of Hammonton, and a sister, Anna Lynne Papinchak, of Edmonds, Wash.

In April, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation was forced to ask DeMarco to restructure the deal to allow it more time because it was having trouble raising so much money in so little time and in a sour economy. The original deadline for exercising the option was March 29.

DeMarco agreed to an extension of Sept. 1.

The conservation foundation needed to raise $5 million before it could exercise the option, a goal it has now reached.

In May, Mark DeMarco sued Garfield and his accountant, alleging, among other things, negligence and breach of fiduciary duty in accusing them of squandering the money of A.R. DeMarco Enterprises.

Not only did he want Garfield removed as chairman, president and chief executive officer of the cranberry business, but he also wanted an injunction against the sale of the land.

Though Mark DeMarco is continuing his suit, he has amended it to remove his request to stop the sale.

Meanwhile, the conservation foundation has lined up a heavy roster of donors. Johnson & Johnson pledged money. So did the William Penn and Victoria Foundations. The conservation foundation's board members also kicked in $1 million. Individual donations total $1.4 million, Byers said.

Though she said she could not be specific, Byers said that total giving by private foundations equals $1.8 million so far. Corporate gifts exceed $100,000.

"It was clear to us that this was an unusual, yet critical opportunity to protect such an important part of New Jersey," Jeff Leebaw, a Johnson & Johnson spokesman, said yesterday.

But the conservation foundation still has $7 million more to raise by 2008 as part of the deal.

And not all have been happy about the sale.

The state has balked at helping fund the project, saying DeMarco has already been paid $7.2 million for restricting the deed on the land through the Pinelands Development Credits program. These are issued to landowners whose property is rendered undevelopable under Pinelands zoning.

And the DEP has an outstanding $595,000 fine against DeMarco, accusing him of illegally destroying wetlands to create bogs. The case is still unresolved.

Environmentalists, though generally supportive, have also said the money could have gone to better use because DeMarco's property is already protected from development by his purchase of the credits and restrictive zoning.

But proponents say the purchase would save the land from being harvested for trees, which is allowed under the Pinelands zoning. And, it would open the land to the public.

Byers said that, once settlement is complete, the foundation will take a year to create a management plan to spell out public uses.

The foundation will name the property after Franklin E. Parker, the first chairman of the Pinelands Commission. The bogs will be named DeMarco Cranberry Meadows Natural Area after that family.


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