It must have been moonglow. An irresistible force — a magical marriage of love and devotion – drew Emily and Johan Firmenich to preserve an expanse of woods and fields on the outskirts of Princeton.
Mountain View Road in Montgomery Township, Somerset County, is one of those hidden treasures that make visitors gasp, “This is New Jersey!?!” Winding between Bedens Brook and Cherry Run, the road’s uninterrupted vistas of beautiful farmland are a magnet for walkers, cyclists and leisure drivers attracted to a landscape remarkable for its coherence and proximity to Princeton.
Just as remarkable is that this landscape is now preserved along its entire length. In July, the Firmenichs, working with D&R Greenway, saved the road’s last piece of developable open space.
It all started on a moonlit night in 2011. “We were living happily in Princeton with our three young children,” Emily recounts. “At D&R Greenway’s Down to Earth Ball at Tusculum, we took a hayride. A full moon lit up the wide open fields and at that moment we knew we wanted to raise our children in a landscape like this.”
Both Firmenichs have vivid childhood memories of rural landscapes, and both are acutely aware of what a community loses when those open spaces are developed. Emily was raised on a farm near Quakertown, Pennsylvania, surrounded by countryside that has since been largely paved over. Johan, who is Project Manager for Sustainability at Firmenich Corporation, grew up in Switzerland, where “Over centuries, most of the land that could be developed was developed.”
When a realtor showed them the balcony of Elizabeth Webster’s property overlooking Mountain View Road, they were awestruck by the view. “Too bad it won’t last”, they said. “Oh, no, the realtor told us – it’s all been preserved,” Emily recalls. “The families before us on this road had the foresight to protect the land. We just fell in love with the place.”
Shortly after they moved, their love was put to the test.
Next to the Firmenichs’ new home was the only unpreserved tract left on Mountain View Road, a 31-acre property of woods and fields. Through Mrs. Webster’s efforts, State Farmland Preservation funds had been allocated for its protection. D&R Greenway alerted the Firmenichs that the time to use these funds was running out. They decided to seize the opportunity to purchase and protect it. “We have a sense of obligation,” Emily says. “It’s a small road that means a lot to many people. It’s a miracle that this road exists, and it would have been a shame to lose it.”
The property is half fields (prime agricultural soils of statewide importance) and half forest. The woodlands, a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees, support wildlife and protect the Cherry Run stream corridor.
D&R Greenway put together a partnership to preserve the property in conjunction with the Firmenichs’ purchase. The State Agricultural Development Committee (SADC) provided 50% Farmland Preservation funding to Montgomery Friends of Open Space; Montgomery Township and Somerset County each provided 25% match funding.
“I’m so pleased that we received the grant from SADC to help purchase the development rights to this beautiful farm, the hole in the doughnut of preserved farmland on Mountain View Road,” says MFOS President Sarah Roberts.
Emily and Johan are now creating a long-term (“30 to 50 years”) management plan for their entire 70-acre property. Emily comments, “We feel more like custodians than owners – we’re carrying the torch, preparing the property for the future the way the people before us did.” They’ll be adding to the stands of native plants (such as milkweed fields that host threatened Monarch butterflies), and will create a tree nursery and native seed bank for the property. Eventually the hay will be replaced with crops that are both financially and environmentally sustainable.
Their son (12) and two daughters (10 and 7) are enjoying the short term, reveling in their new tree houses, “wandering outside, playing in the creek, stalking nature,” says Emily.
Johan, who joined D&R Greenway’s Trustees after the Board’s decision to preserve the property, points out that land trusts also need to plan and fund two distinct programs: preservation to protect land from development, and stewardship to manage protected land so the public can continue to enjoy its benefits. “Land trusts must preserve land while it’s still available. But once we run out of land to preserve, there’s still going to be an enormous amount of work to do, to take care of it. ”