Group wants Pitney estate preserved for public use

The following article was published in the Observer Tribune on September  28, 2017.
Contributing Writer


    The largest section of the Pitney estate off Cold Hill Road in Mendham Township should be converted into a public place to promote the estate’s history, representatives of the Friends of Pitney Farm (FOPF) said at the borough Historical Society meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 26.
    Omie Ryan, president of the friends group, presented plans for the “Pitney Farm Park and Homestead.”  The group wants to convert one acre as a place which “protects and promotes the public investment in the designated open space, provides limited community meeting space and preserves Mendham history.”
    The Friends’ plan would “create and maintain a public park on the seven acres, rehabilitate and restore the surviving section of the building, which happens to be the oldest part of the farm.”
    The plan also calls for maintenance and reconstruction of the walled garden area and the estate’s original cutting garden.
    Pitney Farm was purchased in 2009 by Mendham Township with township funds and $1.5 million in Morris County open space funds.  The funding was to preserve seven of the estate’s 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 or subdivided for residential development.
    In February 2016, a fire devastated the main house at Pitney Farm.  It was determined the fire was intentionally set but there have been no arrests.  The township received $1.5 million in compensation from its insurance company.
    After much discussion, Mendham Township decided to rezone the five acres to sell to a developer to build single family homes.  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.
    “As an academic, (I find) the archeology on the site fascinating,” Ryan said.  “It’s a really fascinating story to tell not just about Pitney, but how the whole community functioned.”
    Ryan said the story was not just about the Pitney family but rather as an example of how life in Mendham, socially and economically, changes over time.
    “Our local landmarks give Mendham its particular and very special sense of place,” Ryan said.  “They are tangible reminders of the history of our community and livelihood of those people who lived (here) were dependent upon this location.  (It) all played into why people came to Mendham in the first place.  There is historic geography we ride past every day.  (People rode) down those roads 100 years ago and those roads were there 100 years before that.  (These) landmarks are how were root ourselves through town.  All of that is part of the character of Mendham.”
    Ryan said the Pitney farm was an example of what attracted people to Mendham.
    “There was a more robust use being proposed for the property (such as) farmers markets, art festivals and other activities,” said Ballantine Road resident Eric Svenson.
    Svenson said residents were concerned with the potential noise if the area was developed.
    “We are suggesting something small with passive recreation,” Ryan said.  “One of the things we have proposed is creating a buffer with a fence and plant buffer.  We are not planning large things, we are not planning to erect a Ferris wheel.”
    Ryan said there would be 10 or 12 parking spots needed, as the use of the property would be passive in nature.  She said current cost projections for development are $350,000 to $400,000.
    Ryan said the funds would just be enough to get the “first floor in working shape” and additional money would be needed to complete the project.
    Ryan said the civic group would be raising funds privately and seeking state historic preservation funds.
    Svenson said he approved the plans.
    “A location central to Mendham that has the history of the Mendhams seems like a great idea,” Svenson said.
    Elizabeth Drake, president of the Mendham Borough Historical Society, said the homestead could be used to educate school children about Mendham’s history.
    Friends board member and Shelton Road resident Peter Dumovic said some members of the Township Committee have supported the park and homestead proposal.  “We presented it to the public and it resonated with the public. Nothing formally has come of that other than it resonated. If you like what you see here, tell a lot of people about it and put pressure on decision-makers to move at other than a glacial speed.  Omie and I have been working on this for years and are still optimistic,“ Dumovic said.