bellhavenA proposal for a water-shooting playground at Red Bank’s little-used Bellhaven Nature Area has raised hackles among environmentalists. (Click to enlarge)

swimming-riverBy JOHN T. WARD

Wednesday night’s meeting of the Red Bank Council could be a water-balloon fight of sorts.

Members of the Environmental Commission, an advisory group, say they were alarmed to learn recently that the borough Parks & Rec department is considering Bellhaven Nature Area, a wetland preserve created just eight years ago, as a possible location for a ‘sprayground,’ a play area that enables kids to get deliriously soaked by nozzles built into fixed apparatus.

Lou DiMento – the lone remaining commission member who was involved in the original preservation effort –  and others say they were shocked to learn that the town might pursue a $250,000 Monmouth County Open Spaces grant, which it would have to match, in order to build the sprayground.

“That stunned us,” especially after the borough government told the commission that it couldn’t come up with a few hundred dollars for a sign to designate the nature area, nestled against the Swimming River at the western end of Locust Avenue, DiMento said.

Memone Crystian, who heads Parks & Rec, said the idea for the sprayground arose as part of an effort to create a new play area in the upper West Side. Many resident children have no access to transportation and no one to accompany them across busy Shrewsbury Avenue to Count Basie Fields, a mile or so away, where they might play, she said.

“I think it’s criminal for kids to grow up on the river but only be able to see it through the reeds,” she said. “I remember being a mother with two young children and a third on the way, and not having a place to go with the children.”

Installing the splashground at Bellhaven, she said, would also bring kids down to the river, enhancing their understanding of nature.

The sprayground, she said, would require the installation of a rubberized platform and fixed tubing from which water would spray. There’s one in Dorbrook Park in Colts Neck, operated by the Monmouth County Parks System, and one in Long Branch, at the eastern end of Broadway.

Crystian distributed an email Monday night asking people concerned about children’s recreation to come out to counter opposition to the plan. She said she’s only looking for a “fair discussion” of the idea.

Proponents of the plan also say it would help drive out drug use, drinking and illicit sex alleged to occur in the  nature area. At the August 2 council meeting, during which talk of a grant application first became public, Mayor Pasquale Menna said the area is so overgrown with phragmites that police are unable to easily monitor the site.

But the nature preserve has never gotten the level of maintenance that the borough promised it would give when the area was set aside as an open-air learning center, complete with displays illustrating the workings of tidal basins and such, DiMento said. And the need for maintenance won’t vanish because of the presence of a playground, he said.

The commission’s response to the grant proposal, in the form of a resolution: build it at the former borough incinerator site if and when that West Sunset Avenue location is transformed into a park. Meantime, come up with a clear plan for maintaining Bellhaven.

Here’s the commission resolution:

The EC recommends that the Borough maintains Bellhaven as a nature area with the addition of river access. Maintenance requires a written plan that is regularly implemented to control invasive species within the circular path and at sites along the river for river access and views as well as security. The EC further recommends that the future Sunset Park would be a more appropriate location to include a spray pad for children of the West Side along with other active and passive recreational opportunities.

The spraryground idea has riled not only the environmental community, but others who see it as a waste of taxpayer money. West Side resident Freddie Boynton is organizing a September 13 community meeting to discuss the proposal, among other issues.

“People bringing their kids down here? It’s a damn swamp,” Boynton said Tuesday. “It’s the dumbest damn idea I ever heard.”

Here’s the council agenda: 8-24-11draftagenda