Unused Willingboro tract to join county park system

Willingboro acquired the 106-acre property in 1997, but was unable to make it into a usable recreation area. Last month, it transferred title to the lakes and land to Burlington County. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)

Once a popular swimming hole and a location for dances put on by American Bandstand, the Willingboro Lakes Nature Preserve soon will be part of the widening Burlington County Parks system.

Willingboro acquired the 106-acre tract, previously known as Olympia Lakes, through a $1 million state open-space grant and $1 million in county funds in 1997.

Unable to afford the millions it could cost to make it accessible to hikers, bird-watchers, and boaters, Willingboro Mayor Eddie Campbell Jr. said the township approved a transfer of the title to the county late last month.

"It's a beautiful area, but it's not usable," Campbell said, explaining how the spring-fed lakes and trails off Route 130 North are cluttered with debris and overgrowth.

Fourteen years ago, the county had no park system and was not interested in holding the deed, county spokesman Ralph Shrom said.

But since then, the state's largest county has amassed more than 3,500 acres for park development and now operates six parks in the Rancocas Creek watershed, called the Greenway: Amico Island in Delran; Pennington in Delanco; Boundary Creek in Moorestown; Smithville and Smith Woods in Eastampton; and Long Bridge in Hainesport.

County officials were thrilled to add the Willingboro tract to its parks system and already are talking about how one day it could become part of a 25-mile biking and hiking trail linking the parks and connecting the Delaware River with the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest in the Pinelands.

The challenge will be finding creative ways to cross several highways and the tidal creek to make all the connections. Currently, the county is acquiring land and easements as they become available to fill in the gaps between its parks, said Matt Johnson, the county's open-space coordinator.

Eventually, the county also wants to link the parks to a proposed 50-mile Delaware River Heritage Trail that will form a loop between the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge and Trenton on both sides of the river, and extending to Philadelphia.

Last year, the county obtained a $1.5 million federal stimulus grant to begin the planning and construction of that trail. Johnson said the county would seek bids in March to begin construction of the first phase of that trail, in the Bordentown area.

"Ultimately we are looking to have upward of 100 miles" of interconnected trails, said Johnson, noting there also are trails going in along abandoned railroad tracks. The goal is to allow you to "step outside your house and have the ability to visit all these regional parks" without driving.

Simultaneously, the county is making improvements to its parks and is developing additional ones in Springfield and Mansfield.

"We're saving properties that if we didn't do it would turn into housing developments," said County Freeholder Director Bruce Garganio. "When the land is gone, it's gone. People enjoy the open space."

Jeff Tittel, director of the South Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said Burlington County had "one of the better programs in the state" and recognized that preserving land was "not just for now but for future generations to enjoy."

The parks and farmland preservation programs are funded with county taxes collected by way of public referendums first held in 1996.

Mary Pat Robbie, resource conservation director, said the first tax dedicated to these purposes was 2 cents, but now is 4 cents. The program is funded through 2036, she said. It's now roughly $20 million a year.

At the Willingboro Preserve, the county initially plans to erect signs, create parking spaces, and clean up the area to make it more inviting to the public, Robbie said. But it likely will remain a passive recreation site for bird-watching, hiking, fishing, and boating.

Partially visible from Route 130 North, just past the Rancocas Creek, the parcel is mostly consumed by its two sparkling, parallel lakes. Mayor Campbell said the lakes were created when sand was removed to provide material to build Philadelphia's subway system.

Campbell said the lakes contain small bass, bream, and trout and are popular with fishermen - including him - who "have some patience." It's not stocked, but some fish do thrive there, he said.

There are also sandy hiking trails around and between the lakes. Deer, raccoons, opossums, and bald eagles have been spotted in the area. At one time, Campbell said, eagles had a nest on the property.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.