By JOHN T. WARD
Over the concerns of environmentalists, Red Bank will pursue grant funding for a ‘sprayground‘ in a riverside marsh that could end up costing $500,000.
A vote by the borough council Wednesday night to authorize a bid for a Monmouth County Open Spaces grant of $250,000, which the town would have to match, followed heartfelt appeals by West Side parents for a place for children to play and by others concerned about illicit activity in the overgrown Bellhaven Nature Area, at the western end of Locust Avenue.
“Our children on the West Side have nowhere to go,” River Street’s Rose Sestito, a mother of five and foster mother of three, told the governing body during a public hearing on the grant question. “Please consider the children.”
The council’s unanimous greenlight for Engineer Christine Ballard to file for the grant came as the town faced a September 9 deadline for doing so. The county freeholders customarily announce the annual grant awards at their final meeting of the year, in December.
“This does not commit the borough to do anything other than applying for the grant,” said Mayor Pasquale Menna, adding that if the grant is obtained, public hearings on detailed plans for the site would be held.
At present, the Bellhaven property, created as a nature area eight years ago adjacent to what was the kennel where Hollywood’s Lassie collies were trained and is now the site of the Bellhaven Commons condos, is meant to function as an open-air learning center, featuring a pathway lined with placard describing natural flora, fauna and the workings of marshes in cleaning river water.
But the site is overrun with hard-to-eradicate phragmites, an invasive reed that naturalist Kathleen Gasienica, who lives in the condo project, said can have roots as deep as 35 feet and emerges from the muck with a spearlike tip that easily cuts even through concrete.
The phragmites also block river views, and provide cover for illicit drinking, drug use and sex believed to take place at night. “We have our share of drinkers down there, amongst many other things,” said Councilman Art Murphy, who serves as police commissioner.
“I live across the street from the water, and I can’t see it” because of the overgrowth, said Leigh Kremer.
But the area has never been properly maintained, and should be kept as wild as possible, said preservationists. While she said she welcomed the newfound attention to the spot, “I question whether any kind of playground with any kind of surface should be put there,” Gasienica said.
“The plan as originally conceived never got a chance to be implemented,” said Tom Williams, who serves as vice chairman of the zoning board. “I just don’t think this is the appropriate area” in which to build a sprayground, he said.
The borough Environmental Commission has also come out as opposed to the plan.
“This is just a grant application,” Ballard told the audience. “This is just a concept.”