Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels, in foreground, listens during the comment portion of the hearing. Below, Michael Humphries of Fair Haven called for an alternative to the borough’s proposed delisting. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Hoping to safeguard Red Bank’s only direct public access to the Navesink River, Maple Cove users and preservationists packed a meeting Monday night to combat a plan that would remove the site from the town’s inventory of preserved lands.
For more than three often-contentious hours, a standing-room audience challenged the borough rationale for the proposed delisting of two town-owned riverfront properties.
Their fear: that contrary to official assurances, the changes would clear the way for one or both sites to be sold for private development.
“The property is not being sold. It is not being turned into condos,” borough engineer Christine Ballard insisted at the outset.
Yet many of the commenters clearly weren’t buying that assertion.
“People feel it’s a first step to something nobody here wants,” Michael Humprhries, of Fair Haven, said of the proposed delisting. “There should be some way of satisfying the public that keeps that piece of property accessible.”
Borough officials have been under pressure from the state Department of Environmental Protection for nearly two years to address what the agency says is a violation of regulations governing sites categorized as Recreation and Open Space Inventory, or ROSI sites. Such sites may have parking lots, but only for users of the open spaces they serve, the DEP contends.
Because the two Red Bank parking areas at issue are not dedicated to open space use, the borough is in danger of losing access to Green Acres funding for ongoing and future projects elsewhere in town, the DEP has said.
One of the two lots at issue adjoins the public library on West Front Street; the other is around the corner, and down a steep hill, on Maple Avenue, at a site dubbed Maple Cove in 2011. Town officials contend that while the sites have been on the ROSI for decades, they did not know of the rules governing parking.
“The DEP forced our hand on this,” said Administrator Stanley Sickels.
To resolve the matter, Sickels and Ballard said the borough has proposed to subdivide the parcel containing the library parking lot – the library itself is on a separate parcel – so that one the riverfront portion remains on the ROSI.
The borough’s plan for Maple Cove is also to subdivide, but the question of where to draw the property line between the parking area and the popular kayak and canoe launch remains to be determined in discussions with the DEP, Sickels said.
In correspondence with the borough, the DEP has agreed that the inclusion of the two parking lots on the ROSI “appears to be a bona fide error.” But the agency required the borough to solicit comments before the DEP could decide on a fix, town officials have said.
In identifying the entire Maple Avenue site for delisting, officials seem to have fed fears, stoked by Councilwoman-elect Cindy Burnham, that the site is being readied for sale.
Citing an early-2008 proposal by Mayor Pasquale Menna that the site be sold, Burnham contends the mayor and council now have undisclosed plans to sell the property.
“It is not the intent of the borough to sell these properties,” Sickels said. “If we wanted to sell them, we could sell them now.”
“The fact that [Maple Cove] is surrounded by Hovnanian is very telling as to why you want to take it off the ROSI,” Burnham said.
Kathleeen Gasienica, a borough resident who serves as president of the American Littoral Society, asked why the borough wasn’t first subdividing the Maple Cove lot and then delisting the parking area. Sickels said it would be a “wasted expense” if the borough took that route and was rejected by the DEP over the placement of the border line.
“It’s a confusing point for a lot of people, because this is taking all of Maple Cove” off the ROSI, Gasienica said.
Among the various alternatives proposed were the expansion of waterfront easement, the filing of a deed restriction that would bar the sale of Maple Cove in perpetuity, and simply restricting the parking lot usage to Maple Cove visitors.
“Please consider finding a way to protect this property,” said Dave Schmetterer, of Red Bank. “We’re sort of one misstep away from losing a very precious resource.”
Sickels said a transcript of the hearing would be created and sent to the DEP in advance of a meeting between borough and DEP officials. Assuming that yields an agreement on how to proceed, the matter would be taken up by the council for official action, he said, noting several times that Menna has pledged to hold at least one more public hearing before the issue is resolved.
But several commenters, including borough Environmental Commission member Lou DiMento, expressed doubt about that scenario as well.
“Once they say yes, it’s over,” he said of DEP officials. “It’s off the list.”
Ballard and Sickels both read from a 2001 report, which they attributed to then-police Captain Ernie Van Pelt, that included the Maple Avenue parking lot in the borough’s inventory, showing that a dozen parking permits had been issued for the lot.
Though the same report appears to have been referenced by borough officials as far back as 2011, Burham said the report might have been “fabricated,” because it had not been provided to her in response to an Open Public Records Act request for documentation on permits issued for the Maple Avenue parking area.
“It’s just my opinion,” she said of the allegation.