Kathleen Gasienica, an environmentalist and next-door neighbor to the nature area, brought a boatload of visuals to bolster her critique of the plan. Borough Engineer Christine Ballard showed a photo of a similar sprayground in Middlesex County. (Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
A steady stream of critics blasted a plan for a sprayground at Red Bank’s Bellhaven Nature Area Wednesday night, citing environmental, economic and safety issues.
The controversial project, in the works for nearly three years, divided backers and opponents along familiar lines at a bimonthly borough council meeting, where Engineer Christine Ballard unveiled the most detailed plan yet for the Locust Avenue facility.
The centerpiece of the proposal is a playground with a crescent-shaped, 1,150-square-foot concrete pad punctuated by six holes that shoot out recirculated water when children activate it via a switch, Ballard told a packed council chamber. The site would not be monitored during the three months of the year that the sprayground would be functional, said Ballard. No restrooms will be provided.
The council took no formal action on the $500,000 plan, which calls for excavating 25 inches of soil to remediate contamination from a long-gone residential oil tank and to remove phragmites, a fast-growing invasive plant than often reaches 15 feet in height.
Critics contend the phragmites will grow back, no matter what is done to control them, and that they are a necessary component of a natural buffer against storm-driven flooding from the Swimming River.
Supporters made the case that whatever the plan’s shortcomings, it is sorely needed because of the shortage of playground facilities on the West Side and because many children there have few cooling-off options in the summer.
Rose Sestito and Elijah Nishiura, a sophomore at Red Bank Regional, presented the council with a petition they said had 300 signatures in support of the plan. Parks and Rec Director Memone Crystian, who’s out on sick leave, told the council that supporters were underrepresented at the meeting because so many of them are economically disadvantaged and fearful of being deported if they speak publicly.
But opponents of the plan, while agreeing there’s a need for recreational facilities on the West Side, said Bellhaven is the wrong place for one.
Environmentalist Kathleen Gasienica, a resident of the condo complex that adjoins site, made a photo-filled presentation to argue, among other things, that putting a concrete pad in the middle of wetlands was “like putting cement on Jello.” As for the phragmites that often choke the site now, “there’s not a chance they’re not going to come back,” she said.
Larry Kremer, who lives across Locust Avenue from the nature preserve, said it would exacerbate a parking shortage prompted in part by regular flooding. There’s a need for a playground, he said, “but I’d rather nothing be done than this.”
When Locust Avenue homeowner Ron Dee noted the absence of a restroom, borough Administrator Stanley Sickels replied that because the park is meant to appeal to kids who live nearby, “the thought is that you go home to use the restroom,” which triggered a wave of ridicule through the audience.
“I don’t see kids walking all the way back up the hill to 50 Locust [the site of an apartment complex] to take a whiz when they’re all wet,” said Dee.
Councilman Mike DuPont said he had “serious doubts” about the sprayground and would prefer that the site be used to educate kids about nature.
The council will discuss the responses and hold a hearing and vote if the plan moves toward a bid authorization, said Mayor Pasquale Menna.
Meantime, the borough faces a deadline of May, 2015 to complete the project in order to secure a $239,000 Monmouth County Open Spaces grant to offset the cost, officials said.