Soccer on turf farms causes controversy in New Jersey

Soccer goals are scattered about the landscape of the Tuckahoe Turf Farm in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Some of the netting-covered goal posts are upright in barren sandy fields, while others are overturned, all awaiting use on fields of green sod when soccer tournaments return this spring to the 700-acre preserved farm.

But this time there will be an important difference, though not one noticeable to the players and fans who gather at the farm off Route 206 on Myrtle Avenue.

A newly enacted, but controversial state law aims to clarify the legality of those games by specifically permitting field sports as low-intensity recreation on the turf farm — or any other preserved farm in one of two agricultural regions of the Pinelands.

Supporters such as the New Jersey Farm Bureau and Hammonton officials say the new law is designed to help the Tuckahoe Turf farm market its athletic field quality turf. Supporters say it will not promote sports on most of the preserved farmland where fruit, vegetables and grain crops are grown, with the exception of smaller sod farm operations that could resort to field sports like soccer.

Environmental opponents of the new law disagree, saying it is a threat to farmland preservation, violates the New Jersey Pinelands Commission comprehensive management plan and will bring more traffic pollution to the sensitive Pinelands, also home to endangered species of flora and fauna.

“We are very happy the bill was passed because it will allow us to continue to expand our athletic sod business and market our product to more potential customers who see these soccer events played on our premium turf,” said Allen Carter Jr., farm manager who spoke for the Betts family, the farm owners from South Jersey.

Carter said tournaments the past half-dozen years allowed the company to survive the economic recession that hit the region several years ago because the bulk of its sod was sold to residential and business customers at that time.

“Our main goal is to continue our business for the upcoming fourth generation of the Betts family,” Carter said.

The farm has provided natural turf for major sports stadiums such as baseball’s Fenway Park, Lincoln Financial Field for Philadelphia Eagles football and for college and high school athletic fields in many states.

“Now 80 percent of our revenue comes from the sale of athletic turf and that allowed us to stay in business and keep our employees.”

Allen said the farm receives only minor income from tournament rental of some sodded fields. The sod is rolled up soon after games and sold.

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance has filed its intention to bring legal action against the Pinelands commission over a decision to temporarily allow soccer on the turf farm. The Hammonton Planning Board also is named.

In first rejecting soccer activity there, the Pinelands commission concluded in December 2014 that commercial soccer was not a permitted use on preserved farmland and violated the Pinelands master plan and deed restrictions.

However, after the Hammonton planning board approved soccer for the site, Pinelands Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg entered into a 2015 settlement with the turf farm to allow soccer for up to three years while the commission further explored the issue.

A Pinelands advisory committee then was formed and was considering a six-month pilot program to permit agritourism and other commercial activities on a preserved farm, but the legislation pre-empted that effort before the committee finished its work.

The new state law passed in January and changes the definition of permitted low-intensity recreation for the first time to include field sports in addition to passive recreation, such as hiking.

However, the new law does not allow permanent structures to be built for field sports, such as dugouts for baseball, and does not extend such sports into the Pinelands’ agricultural heartland, home to most blueberry and cranberry production.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau also supported the legislation. It was modified before final passage to limit the allowable non-farm use to field sports to accept conditional veto terms of Gov.Chris Christie.

“We always felt having soccer as a marketing tool for sod sales was a compatible use and that it does not change a preservation deed restriction,” said Tom Beaver, a farm bureau spokesman.

“We also think the new law will be self-limiting to turf farms for several reasons. You cannot construct anything permanent, such as a hockey rink or a baseball diamond, and other farms have other crops growing on fields you can’t play on.

Wittenberg expressed disappointment at the state action.

“We put a lot of effort into this issue and were addressing it in the rules in a way that was consistent. Our committee will meet and see where we are now and if we want to continue with it,” she said, adding the full commission will have to consider modifying its master plan in view of the legislation.

However, she also concluded it would be difficult to conduct such sports on other types of farms.

“On a turf farm, you can have field sports on your crop because the crop is the turf,” she explained.

There are 23,000 acres in the Pinelands agricultural production area preserved through either the Pinelands development credit program or other state and county farm preservation programs, though more than 45,000 acres remain unpreserved.

Carleton Montgomery, preservation alliance executive director, views the commission agreement with the Tuckahoe Turf Farm a violation of both farmland deed restrictions and the Pinelands master plan.

“No one else was asking for field sports, but they could now,” Montgomery said.

He said the scale of the tournaments being held from spring to fall also “raises serious concerns” about the long-term impact on farmland.

“They park thousands of cars and have thousands of people there using land on an intensive basis,” he added.

Jeffrey Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club director, said the new law is “legislation at its worst.”

“It will turn farm fields into ball fields. This language can open up our agriculture and lands to all types of recreational uses,” he said.

“If you can overturn a conservation easement on a farm in the Pinelands, then you can do it in the Highlands, too … and then all the open spaces can be targeted. This sets a dangerous precedent that interferes with open space and regional planning on behalf of special interests.”

State Sen. Jeff  Van Drew, D-Atlantic, who sponsored the Senate version of the new law, said it helps both the sod farm business, the local economy and youth.

“These competitions bring people to the Hammonton area and help the South Jersey economy and we want to encourage that as well,” he said.

Officials of EDP, the soccer organization sponsoring the tournaments in Tuckahoe, said the spring season will start with the Easter Showcase 2016 for high school age teams with college level playing potential. Teams often come from all around the world to compete in the tournaments.

Bohdan Porytko, executive director of programming for EDP youth league operations called Tuckahoe turf an outstanding grass, tough and resilient.

“We rent fields to create income and bring incredible advertising for the farmer, we generate millions of dollars for the New Jersey economy and we are also very respectful of the environment,” Porytko said.

“We make sure nothing permanent ever gets generated there. We use portable benches for the players, the parents and families bring their own chairs, the cars park on sandy fields where there is no sod yet and crews clean up afterward,” he said.

Russo’s Fruit and Vegetable Farm in Tabernacle, another preserved farm in the Pinelands, is aware of the new law, but its owners are not thinking about bringing sports onto the farm, said Joanne Russo Gesell.

“I don’t think it’s on our radar.”

Carol Comegno; (856) 486-2473;