After almost 25 years and 250 land transactions, the D&R Greenway continues to hone its mission.
The D&R Greenway Land Trust’s recent Down to Earth Ball wasn’t only one of the organization’s primary fundraising events, it also served as a celebration of the thousands of acres of land it has helped preserved.
The Greenway is one of the most successful land trusts in the state, having preserved more than 17,306 acres worth $362 million. In the 24 years it has been in existence, the Greenway has also evolved into an important resource for the arts, literature, and environmental education.
“A hallmark of the D&R Greenway is the connection between art and nature,” said Linda Mead, the organization’s president and CEO. “From the very beginning, we had people who understood that nature is an inspiration, and that the artists who create art about nature can inspire people to preserve land.”
One way the Greenway connects people to nature through art is with exhibitions and art openings in the Marie L. Matthews Gallery and the Olivia Rainbow Gallery — both of which are located in the Johnson Education Center off Rosedale Road.
Mead said the galleries, which are free and open to the public on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., have enabled the Greenway to take its art initiatives “to a new level.” She pointed out that the Greenway’s exhibitions are different from ones in normal galleries. The Greenway doesn’t do shows focusing on a particular artist. Instead, the shows revolve around a central theme.
For example, the theme of the current exhibit, “Dangerous Blossoms,” on display at the Matthews Gallery through July 19, is poisonous plants. The exhibit features the works of 11 different artists.
“I invite people to go to our website (drgreenway.org) and learn about the exhibits that we have,” Mead said. “What’s unique about them is that they’re all focused on our mission in some way, and we feature artists that interpret a particular theme from their own artistic viewpoint.”
The Greenway also hosts lectures featuring experts who speak on various art and environmental topics.
“We bring in folks from places like Princeton University or the Princeton Environmental Institute who speak about subjects such as climate change, critical scientific issues, environmental justice, or the spiritual nature of religion and how that relates to nature itself,” Mead said.
Another project that marries art and nature is the Scott and Helen McVay Poetry Trail, which Mead said the Greenway put in place in 2010 “as a gift to the community.”
The trail, which is one of only several poetry trails in the entire country, was the brainchild of Helen McVay, a long-time trustee of the Greenway, and her husband, Scott, the founding director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation who also started the Dodge Poetry Festival.
“They care a great deal about nature and the environment, and they also love poetry,” Mead said. “They hatched the idea to inspire other people to think about their place in the environment by putting ponderous questions, humorous thoughts, and reflective poetry all along the trail.”
The length of the trail is peppered with markers featuring the work of poets from more than a dozen countries and from eras spanning from the eighth century to the 21st. Each of the poems was chosen for how it speaks to and about nature. In choosing the content, the McVays started with about 200 poems and then whittled the number down to 100 and then to 48.
Mead said that as people walk the trail, they will encounter the nature-related poems, and also benches where people can sit, reflect, and take in the scenery.
“It’s something you can come and spend all day and do, or you can come and read a different poem each time. It’s very relaxing and very inspiring,” Mead said.
Another arts initiative is a partnership with Trenton-based Passage Theatre Company. Last fall, the Greenway and Passage jointly produced a dance presentation that was performed at St. Michael’s preserve in Hopewell, a property that was preserved by the Greenway, and also at Cadwalader Park in Trenton.
“It was a wonderful way to engage people outdoors in the elements, where you can feel the breeze as it blows past your skin, enjoy the sun and watch the performance,” Mead said. “It was a beautiful way to experience art and the environment together.”
One of the Greenway’s newest exhibits features decoy ducks and other birds from a 90-piece collection donated last year. Mead said a section of the library in the Johnson Center was renovated to house the exhibit.
Various pieces from the collection are put on display based on a central theme. The Greenway also hosts events where a speaker will come in and talk about a subject related to the decoys being displayed.
Mead said that the Greenway’s focus on art and literature has helped it engage the broader community and inform them of the organization’s efforts.
“When I first came to work here, I saw that although there was interest in the work we were doing in the environment, the arts and education were really at the top of the heap in terms of private philanthropic interest,” Mead said. “I thought, ‘If we can do something to create the same visibility for the environment and partner that in some way with the arts, we’re going to expand awareness among so many more people.’”
Of course while the Greenway’s work in the arts and environmental education is important, the organization’s primary focus still remains on land preservation. Properties in Princeton that it has preserved or helped preserve include the Institute for Advanced Study lands, Updike Farm, Coventry Farm, the former Robert Wood Johnson Estate and a 14-acre parcel on Rosedale Road across from the RWJ property.
Another important property the organization helped preserve is Tusculum, the historic home of John Witherspoon, in which the Greenway worked with the landowners to establish a permanent conservation easement on the property to keep it open.
The Greenway’s property preservation is not only important from an environmental perspective, it has had a significant impact as well. According to statistics provided by the American Planning Association, it is estimated that the Greenway’s land preservation efforts have forestalled the construction of 8,653 houses, which had the potential to generate 19,037 children. The estimated savings in school costs alone is estimated to be $228.4 million annually.
In addition, the elimination of housing has resulted in the estimated savings of more than 3 million gallons of water of a day and more than a $1 billion gallons of water a year.
The seed of what would become D&R Greenway Land Trust was planted in 1987, when a group of concerned individuals decided that there was a need for an increased focus on land preservation in this area of the state.
“In the mid-1980s there was a lot of development going on, and the state as a whole had focused on preservation in South Jersey, including the pinelands, and had looked at the highlands area in North Jersey,” Mead said. “But there was a big gap in central New Jersey. No one was focusing on preserving land in the suburban communities here. A number of people who were engaged in different ways with different organizations realized that, and they came together with the idea of creating a private nonprofit land trust.”
Three of the organization’s founders — Jim Amon, of the D&R Canal Commission, Rosemary Blair of D&R Canal Watch, and Bob Johnston of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association — were concerned with protecting water quality for the Delaware & Raritan Canal and the tributaries that flow into it, Mead said.
A fourth founder was Sam Hamill of the Middlesex Somerset Mercer Regional Council (now called Plansmart NJ). Hamill entered the equation from a planning viewpoint.
“Sam was interested in looking at the big vision, the planning picture, and how open space interacts will all other aspects of our environment, whether it be transportation, where homes are built, or where villages are located,” Mead said.
After the organization was founded, the next step was targeting properties and preserving them.
“One of our early board members, Bill Swain, had been a developer. He said, ‘You know it’s great to have a vision, and it’s great to have a list of properties we want to protect, now let’s pick one and do it.’ He led the organization, step by step, through the process of determining how you get land permanently preserved,” Mead said.
The Greenway received its nonprofit status in 1989 and set up an office in space at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed. A short time later, it protected its first property — a 38-acre parcel in Lawrence Township.
Now, more than two decades later, the organization is approaching its 250th transaction. Playing a huge role in the Greenway’s success, according to Meade, are the attorneys who have donated their time and effort.
“We’ve been fortunate, from the beginning, to have some very good attorneys involved,” Mead said. “The one who has been at the forefront, and still is, is Rich Goldman.”
Goldman, an attorney with Drinker Biddle, worked on the Greenway’s first land preservation deal in 1992, in which the Greenway became the first nonprofit in the state to acquire land with a Green Acres grant — the 180-acre McBurney woods in East Amwell.
Since then, the Greenway has done 249 transactions, the majority of which were handled by Goldman as a pro bono volunteer. Mead also noted the efforts of attorney Mark Solomon of the law firm Pepper Hamilton, who has also worked on many of the Greenway’s transactions.
“It’s been a great bonus for us, because when you do this kind of work you have to have smart attorneys who not only know how to do the legal work, but also know how to think outside the box, be creative, and be problem solvers,” Mead said. “The two of them have been great at that.”
One of the greenway’s most significant land deals came in the mid-1990s when it led the effort that resulted in the permanent preservation of 589-acres owned by the Institute for Advanced Study. Mead said a key to success for the complex five-year negotiation was the Greenway’s ability to raise significant funding from private contributors.
“All of a sudden we were on the map, and people knew that D&R Greenway not only could get deals done, but could raise a lot of money,” Mead said. “That’s when we started receiving a lot of inquiries, including from developers or the neighbors of lands that were slated for development.”
One of these resulted in the permanent preservation of the 55-acre Robert Wood Johnson Estate on Rosedale Road, which became the organization’s first outright property purchase. Mead said that in 1999 she received a call from John Harper, a retired fundraiser and Constitution Hill neighbor of the RWJ estate property, who offered to help save the estate from a proposed development of 50 houses.
The tract was one of the last large undeveloped properties in Princeton Township and was identified in the township’s open space plan as a target for preservation. The Greenway purchased the property for $7.4 million in 2001 through a combination of public funding, a $1 million gift from two private donors and the sale of three houses at the front of the property on Rosedale Road to the Hun school for faculty housing.
Mead said that 2001 turned out to be a banner year for the organization, with the preservation of some $25 million worth of property. In addition to the RWJ Estate, the 165-acre Coventry Farm on Great Road, which had been proposed for the construction of 70 townhomes, was also preserved that year, as was the 183-acre Carson Road Woods in Lawrence Township. The organization was instrumental in helping raise between $9 million and $10 million in private donations for the purchase of the three properties.
The RWJ Estate became pivotal to the organization’s future. The tract was renamed Greenway Meadows Park and is now home to the Johnson Education Center, a renovated barn that serves as the organization’s headquarters as well as a community center.
According to Carolyn Edelmann, Greenway community relations associate, the center plays host to events held by a number of non-profit, educational and community groups such as the Princeton Photography Club, Young Audiences, and Community Without Walls.
“People and organizations who rent the space need to have an education paradigm, so we wouldn’t have weddings here, for example,” Edelman said, “but it is used by a huge spectrum of people and organizations.”
Edelman was especially excited about a three day workshop on land trusts and private financial wealth advisors working together that was held at the Johnson Center from June 18 to 20. The event was presented by the Greenway, the national Land Trust Alliance and Morgan Stanley and featured participants from across the country.
“When this barn was restored I could have never envisioned what it has become,” Edelman said. “It is fulfilling its mission and way beyond.”
Originally called the Delaware & Raritan Greenway, the organization changed its name in 2004 to the D&R Greenway Land Trust to reflect that fact that its mandate has grown, said Mead. Today, the Greenway focuses its preservation efforts in all of Mercer County and parts of Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Burlington counties, and has also branched out into south Jersey in Salem County.
“Salem County is the oddball,” Mead joked.
The Greenway became involved in Salem, in New Jersey’s southwest corner, when officials from Mannington Township, which is located in Salem, approached Mead after she did a presentation on land preservation and asked for the Greenway’s help.
“They said, ‘We have all of this farmland to preserve and there’s no one working directly in our community, even though they’re working all around us. Can you come down here and help us?’”
“That expanded out vision,” Mead said. “We had developed all of this expertise in getting land deals done, building relationships with land owners and knowing where to go for the funding. That’s what we’re really good at. We realized we can take that expertise and loan it to other areas of the state that are in gap situations where nobody is working directly with them.”
A decision was made to help Mannington, and it resulted in several deals, including the preservation of the 2,000-acre Seabrook Farm in 2008, which at the time was the state’s largest farmland preservation deal to date.
Of course, a major consideration in preservation efforts is the ability to raise the significant funds necessary for property purchases. It’s an area where the Greenway excels.
Mead said the organization raises money for two different purposes. The first, which pays for the costs of running the organization, comes from individual donors, foundational grants, special events (such as the Down to Earth Ball), and donations from corporate partners.
The second is for land acquisition, and that money primarily comes from public open space funding, which includes state programs, such as Green Acres and the Farmland Preservation Program, in addition to county and municipal dollars.
“What’s unique about land trusts, and different from a municipality that’s working on preservation, for example, is that we don’t have the boundary lines that they do. on a lot of different transactions across the board,” Mead said.
“We play the role of being the glue that can pull everybody together and hold everybody together toward a common goal,” she said.
Another funding stream is private donations, which has become more difficult in recent years due to the slow economy.
“More and more, the days of doing a land deal where you have one funder, or even two funders are long gone. Now it’s primarily many public funders, and in a number of cases, private philanthropy as well,” Mead said.
Stretching the dollars they receive is an important factor. Mead said that the Greenway does a good job of getting the best bang for the buck.
“We’ve looked over the years at our operational funding and the value of the lands we’ve preserved,” she said. “Over our history it cost us $725 in operating costs to preserve an acre of land. Another way to look at it, is that: it cost us about $12 million in operating costs to preserve lands valued at $360 million; that’s a ratio of 1 to 30.”
For Mead, who has helmed the Greenway since 1997, her appreciation for open space and the environment dates back to her childhood.
Mead grew up in Lower Bucks County, Pa., in a suburban development that was across the street from a stream that was protected as a greenway. “I had the personal experience of ice skating on the stream, playing and having picnics there. It was very much a part of who I was and my own connection to nature.”
Mead said that while studying landscape architecture at Rutgers University, “I came to understand that my own personal interest was about how people and the environment interact. I come at it from more of a social and aesthetic perspective, rather than a hard science perspective.”
After graduating from college in the early 1980s, Mead went to work for the Heritage Conservancy in Bucks County, Pa., and quickly discovered her life’s work.
“I said, “Wow, this is what I want to do,’” she said. “It’s really about helping people think about how they care about land and what their options are for protecting it. It’s something permanent and something tangible.”
Mead had been working for the Heritage Conservancy for 15 years when she learned that the Greenway was looking for a new chief executive. She applied and was hired for the job.
“The organization had just been through the process of completing the preservation of the Institute lands and I thought, ‘There’s some really smart people involved here and they’re really passionate about it, and they’re doing good work. I’d like to be part of that.’ So I came over here to work at the D&R Greenway and it’s been wonderful,” Mead said.
A resident of Bucks County, where she lives with her husband, Stephen, a retired industrial engineer, Mead lauds the organization’s board of trustees as being integral to the Greenway’s success.
“They’ve been such a good board. They work well together. They have passion and vision. They support the organization wholly and fully, and they’ve also worked well with me to give me the leeway to bring in new ideas and grow the organization in a way they felt was best,” she said.
As for the future of the D&R Greenway, Mead says that she believes the organization “plays a critical role in supporting a sense of community.”
“The future is going to be tied up with a combination of continuing to protect land, but also thinking about how people interact with the land and with the programmatic things we can bring about,” she said.
“As more and more land either gets developed or is protected,” Mead said, “we’re going to be doing more work with things like community gardens and the revitalization or restoration of environments, as well as work that will connect people to the land through the arts and educational programs.”
Mead said the organization welcomes community members who like the outdoors and are interested in volunteer opportunities. Anyone who would like to volunteer can go to the organization’s website at drgreenway.org, or visit the Johnson Education Center.
“If they stop in here and see us they’ll learn a lot more about what we do and they can talk to people,” Mead said. “It’s a great way for them to become more engaged with the organization.”