Pending: upscale condos or community farm?

The ‘gateway to Milford’ hangs in the balance

| 02 Apr 2024 | 01:11

In a cozy café, the dreariness of February hangs outside, but the coffee in here is hot and the company warm. This is Liam Hutchison’s café, BetterWorld, in the village of Milford, PA. This story isn’t about a café though; it’s about a property up the road, and the forming of the grassroots group, Save Santos Farm. Hutchison is a member, alongside Kristin Albrecht, Carissa Souza, Donnalynn Civello and Kaitlyn Winn – all here in this coffee clutch – and Jerry Reganess and Fred Weber, who couldn’t make it.

So what is Santos Farm? I’ve known Milford for decades now and the name was unfamiliar to me. I confessed as much to the group. “We have a plan for that,” Albrecht chimed in, gesturing to a prototype of a yard sign adorning the cafe window: a black square with bold white font reading

“We launched the website only recently,” explained Hutchison. “But once we get the signs out there people will understand.”

“We may even rent a billboard if we get the funds,” mused Albrecht.

It turns out I already knew Santos Farm. Like thousands of people, I drive past it daily. It’s an 88-acre expanse of pastureland on the billboard-dotted main drag, Route 209, between Milford and Matamoras, PA, 10 minutes’ drive from the New York State line. The property is punctuated by beautiful old trees, orchard and historic barn, crowned by a large, deteriorating farmhouse on a knoll.

The old farmhouse looks depressed nowadays, and who can blame it? Its view over the river valley is as beautiful as it is uncertain. For almost six years, a contract has been in the works to convert 28 acres of the old Santos Farm into a multi-use development consisting of a strip mall, upscale housing units and a gas station.

Developer James DePetris, CEO of Legend Properties, reached by phone, said the planned upscale residential units would be a great fit for the Milford area, particularly for empty nesters ready to downsize without leaving the area. DePetris, of Wayne, PA, recently spearheaded a similar mixed residential-commercial development to the one envisioned for Santos Farm. Smithfield Gateway, a 120-acre site in East Stroudsburg, PA, is anchored by a medical center and Dunkin’, and plans include a grocery store, 236 apartments, office and retail space and gas station.

Saving green space is all well and good, but without a realistic plan in place the argument against development is often a hard one to make. Money talks. But Milford has a long history of successful organizing under the flag of preservation. Most recently, a vociferous “Water Not Warehouse” campaign held off a proposed mega-warehouse at the junction of Interstate 84 and Route 6, another piece of prime real estate that developers have been eager to get hold of over the years.

To buy out the developer, Save Santos Farm needs to raise $2 million. As of mid-February, 260 people have pledged $96,973, according to the group’s website. If the group manages to hit its goal, there will probably more fundraising in the future for refurbishing and constructing facilities, the site says.

“We hope to make it a community center,” said Hutchison, “with the community of Milford helping to share what that means.” Among the concepts put forth for the reimagined community hub so far are a school to teach sustainable farming practices and an alpaca farm – the food and clothing products of both ventures to be sold in a shop on the grounds.

Also on the vision board: farm-to-table dining, an events and retreat center, even a Milford grown-and-made line of textiles. “Milford was once home to the school for forestry,” says the website. “Perhaps one day, it could become a new school for Food Forestry.”

DePetris, I was surprised to learn, welcomes the Save Santos Farm vision. If the group is able to gather the funding, he has offered to sell, but will go ahead with development plans if not. “We do need to move forward, we have interest,” he said. “Our intentions will always be aligned with the Santos family,” said DePetris. The mixed-use development plan, while viable, is contingent upon the installation of a new sewer line, added DePetris.

A descendant of Santos Farm still lives in a home on the property, and under the Save Santos Farm plan, they would be able to stay. The property would continue to carry their family name – a name that has been attached to this land for almost as long as Milford has been on the map.

Right now, Save Santos Farm is seeking public awareness and pledges. The pledges are promissory at this point, but represent a real donation one would be willing to make if the land is procured. “If the time comes we will get in touch to ask if they could make good on their promise,” explained Hutchison.

Come the warmer weather, locals can expect to see yard signs popping up alongside the crocuses.