Trees were taken down recently at Bellhaven Natural Area in preparation for an observation deck being built there, according to Business Administrator Ziad Shehady. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank officials have quietly started prep work for a project at a site once mired in controversy: the Bellhaven Natural Area overlooking the Swimming River.
The end result, however will be a “scaled-back” version of a plan that once called for a spray park and triggered loud protests three years ago.
The project is also a tailored version of a plan that was lauded by residents when it was unveiled last August, borough Business Administrator Ziad Shehady said.
Under a concept plan unveiled by consulting engineer Christine Ballard to an audience of about a dozen residents last August, the 1.25-acre site, located on the Swimming River at the western end of Locust Avenue, would have gotten new playground equipment, but no “spray features,” the cooling devices that prompted numerous objections when they were included in a 2015 proposal. Climbing features for children ranging in age from toddlers to about 12 years old were also proposed.
“We’re sticking with the  plan, but we’re scaling it back,” Shehady told redbankgreen following last week’s council meeting. “Certain elements are being removed, either permanently or to be phased in later, as funding becomes available.”
The focus, he said, is now be on the nature preserve and an observation deck, with “some play elements.”
Contemplated by elected officials as a rare place of respite from summer heat for West Side children, a 2015 proposal for a “splash pad” proved highly controversial. Critics said it would have seasonally limited usefulness; would be unsanitary; would attract out-of-towners; and was too expensive and hard to maintain.
Objectors also contended that the wetlands site, located on the Swimming River at the western end of Locust Avenue, is unsuitable for any use other than an educational preserve because it regularly floods.
As as a result of the changes made to the plan in light of the criticism, a $250,000 Monmouth County Open Spaces grant had to be returned to the county because it did not reflect the terms under which the county had approved it. An attempt last year to win a second MCOS grant for the modified project failed.
At present, no grant funding is being used, Shehady said, though the borough may reapply.
“We could decide to pursue grants to add elements that were phased out to be phased in later on, or to do different things,” he said. “We haven’t had those discussions yet. Right now, we just want to get some of this done.”
An ordinance on last week’s council agenda amended a $600,000 2014 bond “to reallocate the soft costs and the hard costs” associated with the project, said Shehady.
The next step, he said, is the creation of construction drawings to put the work up for bidding “and then get this project moving.”
Shehady inherited the Bellhaven project from his predecessor, former borough Administrator Stanley Sickels, who retired last December. Shehady became business administrator in May.
“It’s one of those projects that has languished,” said Shehady, who said he is focused on bringing pending work to completion.
During the public comment portion of last Wednesday’s council meeting, former Councilwoman Cindy Burnham said she was “shocked” recently to discover that trees had been cut down at Bellhaven with no public discussion of what’s happening there.
“Why has there been no discussion?” she asked. “This was a hot topic for like, three years, and now, all of a sudden, all the trees get cut down, and there’s no discussion of a design. There’s no money, we’re raising taxes, and yet we’re building another park.”
“And what I really want to know is who gave the order to cut down the trees at Bellhaven,” she said.
Shehady refused to say who gave the order, terming the information “irrelevant.” The tree removal, he said, was done as site preparation for the project.
Shehady said that there had been “public meetings” involving himself, council members and members of both the environmental commission and the parks and recreation committees to discuss the future of Bellhaven.
“We discussed the redesign plans” and all those who participated were concerned about fiscal contraints and “wanting to do the prudent thing,” he said. “So the project was scaled back to fit within the existing bond ordinance,” he said.
Councilman Mark Taylor said no trees had been removed without authorization from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.