When John C. Gilmour Jr. decided to sell part of his Holly Ravine Dairy Farm in Cherry Hill to developers 36 years ago he understood what the town once was and what it had become.
Gilmour, whose family in 1921 bought the farmhouse without electricity near Springdale and Evesham roads, oversaw Cherry Hill's suburban building boom as mayor between 1963 and 1971.
"I held out as long as I could, but agriculture and suburban development just don't mix," Gilmour told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1987, the year he sold part of his property at the intersection for a shopping center.
The community leader in 1928 bought a milking cow, began dairy farming and married his girlfriend Eva Davis, according to the press report. In 1975 he sold his 175 milk cows.
Holly Ravine's development deal meant the end of the iconic Cowtail Bar and Moo Zoo animal petting area, both of which shut down in December 1987. Gilmour died at 85 years old in 1993 and Eva died in 2011 at the age of 102.
Today, the last 23 acres of the farm property is in the hands of the couple's heirs and the lightning rod for a growing controversy in town: A developer plans to buy the acreage and build 175 independent- and assisted-living apartments for seniors.
It requires several zoning variances, including one for building the multi-unit building in a residential zone. A hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment was scheduled for last week, but it has been postponed to the May 4 meeting. The board caucus will begin at 6 p.m., an hour earlier than other zoning meetings.
"On the issue of any support for building expansion of the former Holly Ravine Farm, it will be both irresponsible and a further detriment to the already deterioration of the area to allow an assisted-living facility," Cherry Hill resident Scott Soffen wrote on the Save the Holly Ravine Farm Facebook page.
Eric Ascalon, who lives near the farm property, started the Facebook page last week and posted: "This group has been live for only a few hours, and we already have over 170 members. This is a testament to how local residents value open space and farmland, and are determined to protect what little remains.
"Our elected and appointed officials need to know that we expect them to work tirelessly to protect our quality of life, which includes the protection and preservation of our community’s farmland, woodlands, open space, and parks," he added.
Others who posted were more open to the proposed senior citizen complex.
"The variance to build assisted living will have less impact than the Holly Ravine Shopping Center," Facebook member Daryl Luber Farber posted. "Surely with the amount of trees being planted the height of the structure will have no impact on the homes butting up to the property lines. I’m for the family selling within Cherry Hill’s allowances."
Developer Caddis Healthcare Real Estate noted in its application that more than 1,000 trees exist on the land, but the project calls for removing just 36 and plans call for planting an additional 418 trees. It also said it will preserve a 100-year-old beech tree and make it the centerpiece of the north courtyard.
The development tug of war is not uncommon across New Jersey as suburban homes fill former farmland, commercial development follows, more homes are built and then even more fields are paved over for stores or multi-family projects.
At some point, residents see the green disappearing and insist that open space be preserved. Many communities, including ones like Cherry Hill, Evesham and Mount Laurel, have programs to buy land to keep it away from developers.
In the Holly Ravine case, developer Caddis, of Dallas, needs the zoning use variance, a height variance (they want 52½ feet where 35 feet is permitted), other variances and preliminary and final major site plan approvals.
Kathy Ripple-Gilmour, of the family of Holly Ravine owners, on Saturday posted on the Facebook page explaining that they had tried for some time to preserve the land.
"As many know, this family farm has been up for sale since 2009 through real estate agents and lawyers," she wrote. "YES, the family sought to preserve this land for years through the county and the state. YEARS!"
"Now we have armchair quarterbacks trying to stop the sale not knowing the history," she wrote.
She declined a 70and73.com request for an interview.
"We did our due diligence," she wrote. "And we truly believe that this nursing home is the best choice for this spot. Not only will this company be saving a tree that is hundreds of years old (that all the Gilmour children have climbed and their friends) and making it a center point of their courtyard, but they will also be planting hundreds of more trees."