HomeMt Laurel NewsPaws supporters turn out in droves for Mt. Laurel Twp. Council meeting

Paws supporters turn out in droves for Mt. Laurel Twp. Council meeting

The March 9 meting at Hartford School drew a standing-room-only crowd

Madeleine Maccar The Sun: The Save Paws Farm Coalition gave “#savepawsfarm” T-shirts to attendees of the March 9 Mt. Laurel Township Council meeting.

Mt. Laurel Township Council’s March 9 meeting — the first since Paws Discovery Farm’s closure — drew a standing-room only crowd of all ages to the Hartford School cafeteria,  many of whom represented the newly formed Save Paws Farm Coalition, wore T-shirts bearing the message “#savepawsfarm” and handed out flyers for their cause.

The Save Paws Farm initiative already has the support of numerous local organizations and has been circulating an accompanying petition that garnered more than 35,000 signatures.

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“I know there’s a lot of people here tonight to talk about Paws Farm,” said Mayor Ira Edelson.

And he was right: Public comment and one-on-one conversations between residents and council members dominated the meeting, as residents, former Paws volunteers and the farm’s supporters from nearby Burlington and Camden county towns and even Philadelphia each spoke their piece for nearly an hour and a half.

But before Paws became the prevailing topic of the evening, sixth graders from Hartford School had a chance to experience local government from the inside while a quartet of eager children lobbied for the names they felt should be given to the Walton Avenue Cistercian Monastery, now public property.

Said Marie Reynolds, Mount Laurel Township Schools’ Director of Communication Services: “Each year, a group is selected to attend a township council meeting as part of their social studies curriculum. Their teacher at Hartford, Paul Devery, has done this for many years.”

This year’s sixth graders were Victoria Duarte, Matthew Hoysa, Luca Jaffe, Prisha Pradip Parekh, Amber-Grace Polonczyk, Dean Simpson and Jessica Yao.

Then Polonczyk (on behalf of classmate Haylee Palmer), Parekh, Gabriel Lopez and Amee Chauhan explained their reasons for the names and any accompanying research that informed their proposals. Ultimately, the council decided on Palmer’s name of The Laurel House, promising the other three names will be given to rooms inside the building. For their efforts and civic-minded enthusiasm, each of the four students received candy baskets as a thank-you.

Once a handful of comments were heard from local animal rescue groups, school representatives thanked the township council for inviting students to see how Mt. Laurel’s government works, and discussions were revisited about redoing the mid-aughts noise test to account for a rise in volume near the New Jersey Turnpike. Edelson invited the Save Paws Farm Coalition and like-minded attendees to sound off.

The coalition, led by local brothers and business owners Russell Johnson of Johnson Specialized Transportation and Christopher Johnson Sr. of Johnson’s Powder Coating, is backed by a coterie of concerned residents and has already submitted a proposal to operate Paws.

Impassioned pleas on behalf of the 40-year community cornerstone, emotional bids for the re-homed animals’ safety, frustration with a lack of communication between council and residents and a variety of questions seeking clarification about the future of the farm and its property punctuated the public comment portion of the evening, with those in the audience often bursting into applause to underscore and show support for certain points.

Ultimately, the council agreed with the coalition and other Paws’ supporters that the closure left a void in Mt. Laurel as an educational asset, agricultural center, place to come together and opportunity to better understand nature’s role in the bigger picture.

Council agreed to not only support the request to find a new operating partner for Paws, which closed earlier this year when The Garden State Discovery Museum ended its management contract, but also to issue a second RFP (or request for proposals) with greater detail. Many residents expressed interest in banding together to help ensure  the farm comes back better than ever and were determined to find ways to cover the Discovery Museum’s quoted operational budget of at least $500,000.

“We want to see this happen, too,” Edelson assured the crowd. “We’re just as upset as you are.”

As the meeting closed, council thanked everyone in attendance for illustrating the power of democracy in action and thanked them for their time and obvious passion for Paws — as well as the learning experience.

“We want to thank you all for coming out, and you will be heard,” Councilman Kareem Pritchett said during the council’s comment at the end of the meeting. “This is Councilman [Stephen] Steglik’s and my second year on council and we learned so much tonight.

“We will do better at communicating with our residents in Mt. Laurel.”

Edelson closed out the session with a reminder that energy and input are always welcome at every township council meeting, noting that the next meeting would be the township’s budget presentation.

“We have other problems than Paws Farm,” Edelson said. “We have traffic issues, we’re getting no help from the state and feds. We invite you to come back for our March 23 meeting.”


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