by MARIN RESNICK, Contributing Writer, Observer Tribune, May 16, 2017
MENDHAM TWP. – The Friends of Pitney Farm (FOPF) presented what they deemed a “win-win” solution to the use of the farmstead during a town hall meeting Wednesday, May 10.
The plan involves turning the now dilapidated farmstead into the “The Pitney Farm Park and Homestead.”
The Pitney Farm Park and Homestead “will protect and promote the public investment in the designated open space, will provide limited community meeting space in the homestead and will preserve a piece of Mendham history,” according to the FOPF.
The FOPF has been rallying to preserve the 12-acre homestead, off Cold Hill Road, since January of 2015.
The farm was purchased in 2009 by the township with township and open space funds, according to FOPF president Omie Ryan. The township was given $1.5M in open funding from Morris County to preserve seven of the 12-acres in perpetuity as open space. The remaining five acres, outside the designated open space, would be used for some sort of municipal facility.
In January 2015, the FOPF was established to preserve Pitney Farm, and to devise a use of the property to provide cultural and educational benefit to the community. In December 2015, the FOPF released a detailed business plan for managing and repurposing the entire 12-area property.
The plan had been met with much controversy as the notion to change the historic property into an artist center appeared to be out of conformity with the residential use of the area.
Also, residents were also concerned about the debt associated with the property, and how the homestead would not generate tax dollars into the community, as it is a not-for-profit group.
In February 2016, a fire devastated the main house at Pitney Farm. After the investigation, it was determined the fire was arson related and the township received $1.5M from their insurance company.
After much discussion, the township decided to rezone the property to sell to a developer to build single family homes on the five acres the township owns. However, Township Committee members had previously stated it would consider a one-acre parcel adjacent to the seven-acre open space portion to include the remaining part of the Pitney home.
The FOPF plan is to “create and maintain a public park in the seven acres of designated open space, rehabilitate and restore the oldest surviving section of the farmhouse, on approximately one acre at the center of the Pitney property. The remaining portion of the municipally owned area would be available for residential use, at the discretion of Mendham Township Committee.”
Ryan said the new plan “balances concerns of neighboring residents as well as optimizing the investment seven-acres of open space.”
The open spaces would include areas for a community garden with room for a green house, a vegetable garden and a cutting garden.
The FOPF also plan on restoring the remaining home on the property to use as a small meeting area for local community groups, and also as a small museum or display area to commemorate Mendham’s history.
Community members appeared pleased with the idea of having a recreational area, but did have some questions and requests for the property.
“I applaud the idea of a museum to capture Mendham history. It could be pretty special,” resident Bob Ritger said.
“The oldest surviving portions of house are as early as 1722,” Ryan said. “It seems like a great location to start the celebration of local Mendham History.”
Ritger asked the FOPF if it would be possible to have access to the Pitney Farm Park and Homestead from Ballantine Road instead of Cold Hill Road.
Marc Parette, secretary of the FOPF, said the neighbors preferred to have the main access off of Cold Hill Road because access off Ballantine Road could have the potential of “bringing additional traffic through the neighborhood.”
“Cold Hill Road has historically been the front of the property,” Parette said.
“I find this interesting and compelling” Cold Hill Road resident Taylor Buonocore said. “I grew up here and moved back here with a one-year-old and it is tough to find public community spaces in Mendham. Homesteads and community gardens are a fluid and hot topic right now. Innovative ways to build community and new approaches putting people together could be an interesting thing to explore.”
Ryan said the FOPF envisioned having activities which have a “natural connection with both the history and open space” of the homestead such as a walking path which would be “someplace for those people who wanted to do a circuit for recreation that doesn’t exist now.”
Ryan also spoke about having a children’s program all about a “secret garden” taking place in the walled garden.
“The walking path is a great idea because there are no sidewalks in Mendham,” Olmsted Lane resident Judy Shrem said. “I would like to see something for older kids. There is virtually nothing for teenage kids. Give them someplace to go. There is no place for kids to go to meet, to have a coffee.”
Buonocore suggested forming community dinners to take part in the farm to table movements where community members could “talk and share a meal.”
“Have children involved in preparing food,” Buonocore said. “It would be an inter-generational way of bringing together people with diverse interests.”
Vice Chair of the Recreation Committee and Township Committee candidate, Amalia Duarte said she is thrilled at the prospect of having a place for outdoor classes and community get togethers.
“It’s a place for classes, and cooking, and all these things we dream about at our meetings,” Duarte said. “We would love to see it preserved, and have a walking path.”
“I applaud your passion to preserve Pitney,” Cherry Lane resident Linda Fairchild said. “May I ask how much have you raised and what the goal is?”
“We anticipate we are going to need $600,000,” FOPF treasurer Sue Browse said. “At this point we’ve done no fundraising at all. We have no firm commitment from the Township Committee. Right now, we have $100,000 in verbal commitments. We would like to start fundraising tomorrow, but it is all in the hands of the Mendham Township Committee,” she said.
“We have to wait for their final decision. The homestead area is a win-win solution. The township can sell some of the acreage to get money into town, and (the FOPF can) keep some of it (for the community) and preserve the house.”