PITCHFORKS OUT OVER COMMUNITY GARDEN

With organizer Cindy Burnham holding up a photo, Annie Jones argues for allowing residents to garden a 900-square-foot strip of borough property at Maple Cove. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

Community garden proponents assailed the Red Bank council Wednesday night for what they termed its “because-I-said-so” opposition to the creation of a farm plot at a borough-owned Navesink River site.

Revisiting the council’s 2011 rejection of a proposal for a pilot garden behind the borough library parking lot on West Front Street, residents challenged elected officials to articulate their opposition to the plan, and left as frustrated as they were going in.

“What we have a hard time understanding is that we haven’t really heard a good reason why not,” Locust Avenue’s Kathleen Gasenica told the governing body.

“It’s very simple,” replied borough Administrator Stanley Sickels. “The council doesn’t share your vision for a garden there.”

“That doesn’t really answer the question,” Gasenica said.

Marked by sharp exchanges and several instances of gavel-banging by Mayor Pasquale Menna, the hearing pitted gardening enthusiasts against council members they feel have irrationally dug in their heels against a spot proponents consider ideal for a garden.

The site, with ample upland area, is “underutilized” by the public that the council professes to want to keep it open for, said garden movement organizer Cindy Burnham, of Fair Haven, who previously led the push to save nearby Maple Cove from sale by the borough.

But officials questioned whether the site might be within the purview of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which borough Engineer Christine Ballard said has jurisdiction over all development within 300 feet of waterways – an assertion that prompted mutterings from the audience that gardening is not “development.”

Officials also questioned how the plots would be apportioned among residents who want to raise vegetables and flowers at the site; where gardeners would park without taking spaces reserved for library patrons; the accessibility of the site to handicapped; and plans for the restoration of a deteriorated bulkhead, possibly this year, that might require the destruction of the garden.

In the past, officials argued that the waterfront site should be preserved for use by all residents, and not the select few.

The session kicked off with councilmembers Kathy Horgan and Ed Zipprich offering a compromise, one they said they had arrived at after visiting every borough-owned parcel of vacant land over the weekend: Marion Street, near Eastside Park, the site of an old pump station.

“It seemed, in our uneducated opinion, to be the ideal spot,” Zipprich said.

But the suggestion elicited a welter of complaints by Burnham and others that the site could hardly be less centrally located for the use of all residents, a requirement that some on the council itself had insisted on last year.

“Marion is as far out on the East Side of Red Bank as you can get,” Burnham said. She said nearby residents are likely to oppose having a community garden next door, “and I don’t blame them.”

Horgan also suggested the gardeners approach New Jersey Transit about creating a plot on a triangular lot outside the train station on Monmouth Street, arguing it was unlikely to be vandalized because of the number of passersby. But she also wondered aloud whether an alternative offered by the proponents, at Maple Cove, might not be right for the same reason.

“There are a lot of people around. It could get destroyed,” she said.

Environmental Commission chairman Andres Simonson told the council that it was “missing the boat” by rejecting the library site. “What a great beacon that would be” for the town’s commitment to the community gardening concept, he said.

The sharpest attack of the night was leveled by Ernest Anemone of Riverside Avenue, who singled out Zipprich for what he and others called the council’s “because I said so” rationale for opposing the library site.

“This town doesn’t need to impress you,” he said. “You need to impress this town.”

By meeting’s end, the council had approved a resolution approving the Marion Street site, but leaving open the possibility that Maple Cove might be farmed for a year – even though farm engineer Tony Sloan, appearing on behalf of proponents, said the site would require “itty-bitty plots and itty-bitty walkways.”