Stewarts’ Farm Sanctuary Proposal Takes Seed

first_imgBy Joseph SapiaCOLTS NECK – Entertainer Jon Stewart and his wife, Tracey, have moved closer to turning the historic Hockhockson Farm on Route 537 into an agricultural sanctuary-education center.On Tuesday, the Monmouth County Agriculture Development Board voted unanimously to declare the 45-acre Hockhockson Farm, now operating with horse boarding and the growing of vegetables and flowers, a commercial farm.When the board reached its meeting curfew of 10 p.m., it tabled the remainder of the application until its next meeting, May 3 – to be heard at the same location and time, 7:30 p.m. at the Monmouth County Agricultural Building, 4000 Kozloski Road, Freehold Township.At that time, the board will deliberate whether the sanctuary’s education-visitor center, which is not allowed in the township’s agriculture zone, would be a legitimate part of the farming operation. If the board approves, the application would bypass a township variance needed for the zoning and move to the township Planning Board for site plan approval.William Potter, chair of the Agriculture Development Board, said the board “most likely” would decide the matter at the next meeting.The Stewarts, a Red Bank couple applying as the JTS Land Trust, hope to begin operating the sanctuary in the spring of 2017, according to Tracey Stewart. Jon Stewart, the former host of the popular “Daily Show” on Comedy Central television, was not at the meeting.JTS Land Trust is the contract-purchaser of the Hockhockson Farm, which is owned by the Cooke family. Robert Cooke III, who lives on the farm, testified his family has owned the farm a “couple hundred years.”Tuesday’s 2-1/2-hour hearing, attended by about 20 members of the public, combined a presentation of the applicants, JTS and Hockhockson Farm; questions from the board; public comments supporting the application; and concerns raised by the township.Robert Cooke III, an owner of Colts Neck’s Hockhockson Farm, at a meeting of the Monmouth County Agriculture Development Board. His family has owned the farm for a “couple hundred years,” Cooke said.Basically, the township is concerned about losing control over the building of the education-visitor center – proposed as 8,400 square feet over two floors– and any other parts of the application; that tenant farmer Robert Laurino, rather than the farm owner, was providing financial statements toward the farm qualifying commercially; and that a movie/TV studio, once talked about but not longer in the plans, be specifically excluded if the board grants a Site-Specific Agricultural Management Practice (SSAMP).In discussing whether Hochhockson Farm, which sits between Laird and Swimming River Roads, qualifies as a commercial farm, various board members expressed no doubt.“I feel it meets the criteria of a commercial farm,” said board member Gary DeFelice.“I think it clearly does fit,” added board member Nancy Grbelja.The vote was 10 to 0 in favor. Board member J. David Holmes, an Upper Freehold farmer, recused himself from hearing the application because he has sold hay to the Stewarts.“I might not have had to recuse myself,” Holmes said. “(But) just on the safe side, I did.”After the farm was declared commercial, the hearing moved more on to what the Stewarts plan there – growing crops and protecting farm animals, while educating visitors on farming and healthy eating.“The goal of the farm is to be excited to see where food is coming from,” said Tracey Stewart, a former veterinary technician who lived on a farm as a child. “I do think of a farm as a perfect classroom.”“Adorable animals” are a way to draw people to the facility, she said. Anticipated living at the farm would be four to six cows, two to four pigs, six to 10 sheep, six to 10 goats, two to four horses and up to 50 chickens, according to JTS’s application.Tracey Stewart said the farm will not be a rescue facility, per se. Instead, it will be getting animals from the New York State-based Farm Sanctuary, which rescues animals.“We’ll be getting the cream of the crop,” Tracey Stewart said.The new education-visitors center will be part of the hub of the farm, or just beyond the main farmhouse.The farmhouse, whose oldest section dates to the late 1700s, will not be modernized and, therefore, not be available for general public access. Instead, it will be generally off-limits – regarded, according to Tracey Stewart, “as a fragile piece of history.”In response to a question from DeFelice about whether the education provided would be detrimental to traditional animal production on farms, Tracey Stewart said no.“I might have something different on my plate, but we’re all sitting at the same table,” she said.Tracey Stewart said the plan is to keep Laurino farming the property – “Absolutely, we need him,” she said – and no standing buildings on the farm are to be demolished.Colts Neck officials questioned whether the JTS and Hockhockson Farm application was in the right place – before the Agriculture Development Board, rather than the township Planning or Zoning boards.The township officials sought more detailed plans, beyond conceptual ideas.“We’ve heard a lot of concepts, but the devil is in the details,” said Township Attorney Joseph Clark.“We’re not adverse to the concept, we’re adverse to the process,” said Deputy Mayor Michael Fitzgerald. “There must be a reason they didn’t come to us first (at the township level). They lawyered up and came to you.”“I built my house there, I had to follow the rules from Colts Neck,” said John Young, who lives next to Hockhockson Farm.But Sue Fulton of Asbury Park told the board any question of process – the county Agriculture Development Board being the wrong place – “flies in the face of what you’re here to do.”“You need to keep farming around here,” said John Kissel, a township resident expressing his support. “You have to have farming or else you have developments, otherwise you have schools to pay for.”Former Tinton Falls Mayor Mike Skudera, who lives near the farm, expressed his support.“I’m excited about this idea,” said Jason Saleh of Little Silver. “I just want to voice my support for this.”Early in the hearing, Cooke explained how the farm was once 290 acres, but downsized a few times. From the time his grandfather ran the farm to now, it has had various uses: cattle, Christmas trees, flowers, hay, straw, horses. A farm stand has been on the property on and off since the mid-1980s, Cooke said.The Stewarts own a farm in Middletown, but it is only about 12 acres, or about one-third the size of Hockhockson Farm, said their lawyer, Philip San Filippo.last_img

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