Updated: Sunday, July 17, 2016, 11:59 PM
At the four-way stop intersection at Smithville and Powell Roads in Eastampton Township, an area that used to be a big plot of grass has turned into a scenic stop.
"We're a small town, but we do have distinctive character," Eastampton Mayor Rob Apgar said. "I see people actually pulling over to take pictures. . . . People never did that before."
It is not a park or monument that passersby are admiring; it's a stormwater basin. One of several in the township, the basin collects and infiltrates stormwater, but it has been naturalized, so it's covered in wildflowers instead of a green lawn.
"What you end up with is a basin that has more character," Apgar said.
Along with Mount Holly, Eastampton participated in a naturalization project that converted four basins - two in each town, all along Route 621 - from grassland to natural meadows laden with native plants and flowers to simulate wetlands.
Randi Rothmel, chairwoman of the Mount Holly Environmental Advisory Committee, applied for a grant from New Jersey American Water and began the project with $6,640. By November 2015, the team had killed and cleared the existing grass in the basins and planted seeds for the new species.
Now eight months and a few seasons later, the plants are in bloom and full of natural pollinators and insects such as honeybees, dragonflies, and butterflies.
"We are very happy to see how successful it was for the first season; things seem to be going well," Rothmel said. "It eventually should be self-sustaining."
The project originated in Eastampton, when Apgar was serving on the township's environmental committee in 2012. He saw a presentation about basin naturalization and stormwater management by Mike Haberland, an environmental and resource management agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
Haberland, who has been doing this work for about seven years, said restoring habitats for natural pollinators was necessary as development claims land. These kinds of basin projects have become an increasingly popular option, he said.
Replacing grass with native plants fosters better water infiltration as deeper root systems loosen the ground. As a result, there is little to no overflow or flooding into surrounding streams, Rothmel said.
"Grass is not natural," she said. "It has a fairly shallow root system, and other plants have deeper root systems, which go farther into the ground and can absorb a lot more water."
Naturalized basins also filter out pollutants more efficiently and therefore protect streams and the Rancocas Creek.
Because native plants do not require much upkeep - particularly mowing - the project is also saving the townships money, Haberland said.
"We thought, 'What a waste it is in manpower to mow these basins every week, when instead we could just plant native plants there,' " he said.
Eastampton piloted a trial basin naturalization on a small part of the one-acre basin off Smithville Road back in 2013. The resulting meadow drew more natural pollinators and better infiltration, Haberland said.
About 90 percent of the species near the basin were found in the converted meadow, he said. So the townships then partnered, and the Mount Holly committee applied for funding to convert the three others.
Haberland said some townships, exposed only to grass-covered basins, might not understand the benefits right away.
Apgar added that the popular property aesthetic in the area used to focus on a well-groomed and shortly cut lawn. Some people might be hesitant to stray from that norm.
As the plants and flowers began to grow in the basin, some residents were curious about why they were getting so tall, he said.
"Until it bloomed, you didn't know what it was," Apgar said. "There were some people who thought we were giving up on maintaining it."
But since the plants have come into full bloom, he hasn't received any complaints. Instead, he watches as people admire the flowers.
Apgar added that he would be willing to expand the project and convert other basins in the township, but would like to monitor the progress of the few in the area first.
"A field of wildflowers is a lot more aesthetically pleasing than a field of grass," Rothmel said. "Having an all-grass lawn really isn't what nature's all about."
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