Open space advocates praise preservation deal of Breton Woods
BRICK — Ryan Gittler-Muniz has spent more than a year fighting for the preservation of 30 acres of woods near his mother's home to be protected from development, so when he learned that Ocean County officials would consider purchasing the parcel for open space, he felt relief.
"I'm celebratory. I'm excited," said 23-year-old Gittler-Muniz. "I'm really happy about this news."
On Wednesday evening, Ocean County officials tentatively struck a $8.5 million deal to purchase the site, known as Breton Woods, from builder D.R. Horton of Mount Laurel for the county Natural Lands Trust program. The builder had originally proposed constructing 59 single-family homes on the site, which lies north of Drum Point Road.
The Ocean County Natural Lands Trust program purchases and maintains "environmentally sensitive, natural lands or open space" to help protect the county's rural areas and important green spaces, according to the program's website. Through dedicated county taxes, the program raises about $10 million each year for purchasing land and forests.
A hearing on the Breton Woods purchase will be held March 1 at the Ocean County Board of Commissioners regular meeting.
The county would pay $6.84 million and Brick would pay the remaining $1.71 million of the purchase price, according to county officials.
"I will fully breathe a sigh of relief when the signatures are made and the ink is dry," said Gittler-Muniz, who formed a Change.org petition called "Save Breton Woods" more than a year ago.
Since early 2022, planners and construction experts spent hours on behalf of D.R. Horton describing home plans, street paving concepts and soil tests to the Brick Planning Board, which was set to vote on whether the proposed development conformed to township land-use rules.
Gittler-Muniz was in the audience of those meetings in a green "Save Breton Woods" shirt, along with dozens of other Brick residents and local environmentalists in matching shirts. At least 50 audience members showed up for each meeting to oppose developing one of the township's last — and largest — privately-owned, forested parcels.
Save Barnegat Bay, an environmental group devoted to protecting and improving the Barnegat Bay and its watershed, also took up the fight alongside Gittler-Muniz. The group helped fundraise and hired a lawyer to fight the proposed project before the Planning Board.
Willie deCamp Jr., president of Save Barnegat Bay, said he was "tentatively ecstatic" over news of the impending sale to Ocean County.
"It's a real estate deal, and you don't know until all the i's are dotted and the T's are crossed when real estate deals are contemplated," he said. "But we're very happy. And we're grateful to everyone involved, including the town and the county."
deCamp said opposition to The Havens was some of the strongest he has seen against a proposed project in the area.
"I have been battling developments in Ocean County for 37 years," he said. "I can honestly say I've never seen a group of objectors more highly motivated and more willing to do the work of rallying public support."
The issue garnered attention not just in Ocean County, but New Jersey media and New York City television also covered the story of a group of neighbors devoted to preserving their patch of woods. Gittler-Muniz's petition rallied the support of more than 7,000 signers. Neighbors continued attending Planning Board meetings that often stretched late into the night and focused for hours on project details like soil compaction or pavement permeability.
Tony Kono, chairperson of the Brick Environmental Commission, which aims to protect natural and water resources in the town, said preserving Breton Woods made the most sense for residents. Developing the parcel would have implications for neighbors, in terms of access to nature, traffic and stormwater management, he said.
"Anytime that we have the ability to direct the stormwater to someplace other than the streets, to sewers, and people's basement, it's going to benefit us, not just for the long term, but now forever," he said.
Brick Mayor John Ducey said the "Brick Open Space Savers" group has worked on the preservation deal for more than a year now.
Brick plans to use a slice of the property to build a small park next to Osbornville Elementary school, he said.
"The fact that it's finally coming through is great, because there was definitely a period of time where I didn't think it was going to happen," Ducey said. "That was our main priority, out of all the properties we looked at. And to have that actually be completed and be open space is just an awesome accomplishment.
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Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, email@example.com or 732-557-5701.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Brick NJ open space saved by Ocean County program