By JOHN T. WARD
A controversial plan for a spray park in Red Bank’s Bellhaven Natural Area has all but officially sputtered out.
The borough-owned riverfront lot at the western end of Locust Avenue is still envisioned as the site of a much-needed West Side playground, according to Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer, the governing body’s liaison to the parks and recreation department.
But a spray park or a splash pad that shoots jets of water skyward? That’s done, she tells redbankgreen.
“There was so much opposition to the splash pad feature, and I am among the opposition,” said Schwabenbauer, who took office in January, long after council consideration of the idea took root. “When you consider where they were putting it, it really didn’t make sense for that location. But I think everyone agreed that a playground at the location made sense.”
The water feature attracted few supporters as critics blasted it, saying it would have seasonally limited usefulness; would be unsanitary; would attract out-of-towners; was too expensive and hard to maintain; and was at odds with the wetlands that comprise a significant portion of the site.
Even after numerous rounds of criticism, however, the splash pad lived on as an “alternate feature” that borough officials said they would seek bids for so they’d be able to compare its cost to a smaller and simpler design that later emerged, Schwabenbauer said.
And it lived on, she said, because the water feature had been included in a grant proposal that resulted in Monmouth County awarding $250,000 toward the project in the form of an Open Spaces Grant. In keeping with grant requirements, the borough has also allocated toward the project’s costs.
“Rather than risk losing the grant, we figured we would just bid it out and that way we would at least know what the numbers were,” she said.
But those bids were never posted for prospective vendors. They were delayed by questions about permits required by the state Department of Environmental Protection “to build any kind of park there whatsoever” and the discovery of possible oil contamination from a home once located on the property, Schwabenbauer said.
The contamination, however, is not within the area of the parcel contemplated for a playground, and would be off-limits to children and other visitors, secured by fencing.
“You don’t want kids wandering off into a nature area, plus the Swimming River is right there,” she said.
The bids are now expected to go out in coming weeks, she said, and will still include the splash pad as an alternate feature. But they’ll now also include a second alternate, one calling for environmentally friendly features that incorporate both recreational and educational aspects, she said.
She cited as an example a concrete piece that “looks like a fallen tree” but “has a lot of interactive features” that encourage kids to climb and slide.
She said brightly colored playground gear similar to that now at Marine Park would look out of place in Bellhaven. “It would be like putting a McDonald’s on a mountain,” she said.
The second alternate idea was firmed up on a recent walk-through of Bellhaven that included Schwabenbauer; representatives of the borough Environmental Commission, the DEP and the American Littoral Society; and the borough’s contract engineer, T&M Associates.
“We wanted to get everybody on the same page,” she said, and ended up with the DEP offering a “handshake agreement” on the removal of some trees and planting of new ones.
The council’s parks and rec subcommittee of Schwabenbauer and councilmembers Kathy Horgan and Ed Zipprich is expected to meet in coming weeks to approve revised bid specs, which would then be posted for vendors, Schwabenbauer said.
But first, they’ll also have to get approval from Monmouth County to deviate from the terms of the grant application, which Schawbenbauer said she doesn’t think will be an issue.
“I cannot imagine that any grant committee would say no to this,” she said.”This is a unique opportunity that I don’t think exists anywhere else in Monmouth County. We have eagles nesting there. I think we have ospreys. Egrets for sure. We have a lot of plant life that’s unique to the wetlands area.
“To create an access point, where people actually get in and learn about it and see it without disturbing it — that’s a really unique opportunity,” she said.
A final design for the site would require council approval, she said.