By JOHN T. WARD
At issue: whether to keep spending money on prep work for the controversial four-year-old project, which has been temporarily derailed by the discovery of heating oil in the soil.
Counting at least three prospective “no” votes on the six-member council, Republican Cindy Burnham asked: “Why do we continue to use taxpayer money to pay [engineering consultant] T&M Associates for soil testing and permits?”
The answer, according to Administrator Stanley Sickels, is that the work is needed in order to obtain state Department of Environmental Protection approvals in light of suspected oil contamination, which may be a vestige of a home demolished on the site when it was designated as a nature area abutting the Swimming River in 2003.
The DEP’s blessing is needed, Sickels said, for the administration to proceed with a bid process authorized by the council. That bid, which will ask vendors to come back with prices for a playground that both includes and excludes a water-spray area, would give the council a cost basis on which to decide whether to go ahead with a project, he said.
“The environmental assessment has to be done regardless of what we do down there, with or without the water feature,” Sickels said. As previously agreed, he said, a public hearing on the park’s future would be held before the council votes.
Burnham noted, however, that she, fellow Republican Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer and Democrat Mike DuPont had all signaled opposition to the spraypark, as has Mayor Pasquale Menna, who only votes on council business in the event of a tie.
“I see it as we’re continually paying T&M to look into” a project that has little public support, outside of a passionate few advocates, Burnham said.
“I hear nothing but good things about the park,” said Council President Art Murphy. “But I wouldn’t say yes or no until we’ve got something on paper and hold a public forum.”
Councilman Ed Zipprich noted that a petition had been previously submitted showing 300 signatures in support of the project.
But Burnham and three property owners – Bill Meyer, Leigh Kramer and Freddie Boynton – disputed that it reflected the sentiment of the town, or even the West Side.
“There is not one resident of Locust Avenue who is openly in favor of this,” said Kramer, who lives on the street, just opposite Bellhaven. “Sure, there are a few people who live barely within walking distance.”
Schwabenbauer said the town spent $43,000 in 2014 on the project, but that the year-to-date tally for 2015 was not immediately available.
Earlier this year, borough Engineer Christine Ballard, a T&M employee, estimated that the town had spent in the ballpark of $75,000 on the site.
The town has a pledge of a $250,000 Monmouth County Open Spaces grant for the project. Ballard said the grant deadline for using the grant had been extended recently to the end of 2015; it was to have expired on May 31.