The Manalapan Township committee voted last week to allow warehouses and sports complexes on a 225-acre strip along Highway 33 occupied primarily by pastures, paddocks, stables and training tracks in Gaitway Farm, New Jersey’s primary training center for standardbred horses that race at the state’s two harness tracks, Freehold Raceway and Meadowlands Racetrack, and others across the country.

Closing a year-long process that included the Township Planning Council’s recommendation that the area was “in need of redevelopment,” the committee voted 4-0 last Wednesday to adopt the Gaitway Area Redevelopment Plan, which changes local zoning to allow indoor storage and recreation. southwest of the intersection of Highway 33 and Woodward Drive.

The farm is owned by the heirs of Kenneth W. Fischer, a coffee and tea merchant who also owned horses as well as Freehold Raceway, located a few miles west of Gaitway, a pun. Steps, which refers to a horse’s running style, such as trotters or pacers. Fischer died at Freehold in 2011, leaving the farm under the control of his sons, Kenneth Jr., Gary and Jeffrey Fischer.

The redevelopment area includes the 200 acres of Gaitway Farm, as well as additional smaller properties deemed run down or underutilized, including an abandoned nursing home, Manalapan Manor, which faces Highway 33 just east. from the entrance to Gaitway, a sprawling equestrian facility largely hidden from the busy east-west thoroughfare.

The farm, which houses 550 horsepower, sits across Route 33 from the Knob Hill Golf Club, an 18-seat course and residential community developed by senior Fischer.

In addition to warehouses and indoor sports facilities, other uses foreseen in the plan include light industry and agricultural activity already taking place there. To help offset any new construction that may result, the plan calls for 100 acres of the redevelopment area to be preserved as open space.

Mayor Jack McNaboe and other township officials stressed at the meeting that the plan does not allow the city to condemn the property and turn it over to a designated developer, a highly controversial practice condemned by human rights activists. property and others. Rather, according to mayor, township attorney Roger McLaughlin and township planning consultant for the redevelopment area, Jennifer Beahm, the plan was based on the development or voluntary sale of the affected properties by their owners.

“It’s not a conviction designation,” said Beahm, who appeared via Zoom on a large screen in the committee room. “If the owner of Gaitway Farm doesn’t want to sell, he doesn’t have to. What farm owners want remains unclear, officials and observers said. Fisher’s three sons, now in the 60s and 70s, could not be reached. A message left on Gaitway’s number was not returned, and repeated calls last Thursday were greeted with a busy signal.

In an interview earlier in the week, McNaboe said the township had been contacted by a lawyer for people interested in developing storage at the site. The lawyer, Kenneth Pape, did not call back. McNaboe said the farm was in financial difficulty and at least some members of the Fischer family were in favor of a sale.

He told the public on Wednesday that if the owners were to sell the farm, putting the plan in place would help avoid redevelopment of the property as a higher impact use. For example, a developer could sue to obtain authorization for high-density housing that contributes to the city’s affordable housing needs, which would put a strain on the services of the town and the school district, he said. declared.

“I’m all for them staying on a horse farm, but let’s face it folks, I don’t see that happening,” McNaboe told the crowd. “I have to be realistic. Money speaks.

Socially estranged members of the public attended a meeting of the Manalapan Township committee on Wednesday, in opposition to a redevelopment plan, later approved by the council, which will develop warehouses on the site of the horse training center standardbred Gaitway Farm off Hwy 33.Steve Strunsky | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

But the redevelopment plan has raised concerns among residents of Manalapan and neighboring communities over the overdevelopment of their still largely rural area of ​​West Monmouth County, as well as fears from members of the standardbred racing industry that permission Additional uses on the property under the plan could – as the name suggests – speed up its sale and redevelopment, eliminating a facility essential to the racing industry.

“This order prompts them to sell,” said Julie Miller, a Millstone resident who was present at the meeting as the owner and trainer of Standardbred who rides 50 of her own horses at Gaitway along with 10 others owned by clients.

Miller said she moved to Monmouth County from Illinois precisely because of Gaitway, and that there were simply no comparable facilities to replace her for her and other coaches and owners. , and the loss of the facility could reverse a dramatic comeback in the New Jersey racing industry through higher purses and online betting, after years of declining attendance and betting on the track. She was not alone.

Victoria Britton, attorney for the Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association of New Jersey, the state’s harness racing trade group, told the committee via Zoom that the loss of the training facility “would be a devastating blow to our members.” .

Miller was among more than 30 people who attended Wednesday’s meeting in person at the Manalapan Municipal Building. Virtually all were opposed to the redevelopment plan, judging by the screams and a show of hands outside the committee room just after the vote, when the crowd rose in unison from their socially distant folding chairs and a left the meeting room with disappointment.

Some feared the warehouses would add even more truck traffic to Route 33, which drains into the New Jersey Turnpike about 5 miles west of the farm, an impact they said had already been shown. by opening an Amazon facility a few miles east of the agricultural site in Monroe Township.

“How much can a highway handle?” Pat Butch, a resident of neighboring Millstone Township, said after the vote.

“There are just too many warehouses,” Manalapan resident Alan Poliner told the committee. “We don’t need it anymore.

The announcement of a plan to encourage the redevelopment of a working rural horse farm consisting mostly of grass, wooden fences and a few ancillary buildings has caught the attention of public policy scholars at the Rebovich Institute from Rider University, whose director, Micah Rasmussen, tweeted about the matter ahead of last Wednesday’s meeting. In an interview, Rasmussen said he had never heard of such a thing.

“How can you redevelop something that wasn’t developed in the first place? Rasmussen said.

After the meeting, the mayor said he understood the concerns and disappointment expressed by residents and others.

But McNaboe reiterated the potential cost to taxpayers of fitting out the property as housing, which would require additional services such as police patrols and garbage collection, not to mention more teachers and rooms. class. These, in turn, would lead to tax hikes that would anger others just as much, if not more.

“We’re in the business where you don’t win,” McNaboe said.

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Steve Strunsky can be reached at sstrunsky@njadvancemedia.com.

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