Environmental Commission Alleges Revisionist History
Claims that the Red Bank Environmental Commission failed in its promise to maintain the Bellhaven Preserve are unfounded, the board says upon investigation.
Among the motivating factors for transforming Locust Avenue’s Bellhaven Preserve into a sprayground, or so it’s been told, is the idea that the borough’s Environmental Commission failed to maintain the maligned property after it promised to more than a decade ago.
Yes. Well, about that.
At its meeting Tuesday night, the Red Bank Environmental Commission heard from its only remaining member from a previous commission that sought council approval to turn a blighted west side property into a natural preserve a little more than a decade ago.
Lou DiMento was part of the board then, as he is now, and while he remembers plainly the process that led to the development of Bellhaven, he said, the one thing that just happens to have escaped his mind is any discussion in which the commission said it would maintain the site. The notion of volunteers being responsible for maintaining any borough property is new to him, he said.
“That would certainly set a precedent,” DiMento said.
(Clarification 9:27 p.m.: the Red Bank's proposed sprayground does not include a pool, shallow or otherwise, Sickles said Wednesday, but rather a flat surface with fresh running water and drainage.)
The borough is looking for a solution to replace Bellhaven as it currently exists. Though Red Bank professionals and council members have said they appreciate the idea of providing passive recreation in the form of a small nature preserve in a town where nature is at a premium, Bellhaven is underused by a community that would benefit most from open space. The solution developed by the Parks and Recreation Department – though one they often remind everyone isn’t by any means final — is a sprayground, a children’s water park with sprinklers, shallow pools and other similar amenities.
Currently, Bellhaven is plagued by the dense growth of phragmites that stand 10 feet tall on either side of a narrow path that winds its way through. The claustrophobic park, where views of the river, mere feet from the walking path are nonexistent, is understandably underutilized. Because of the lack of visibility into and out of the park, police say Bellhaven has become a haven for criminal activity.
It’s the opinion of the Environmental Commission, however, that a little TLC applied to the preserve — by the borough — is all that’s needed to return it to its previous, intended use as a place for passive recreation. And, at least according to DiMento, the burden of maintaining the property falls on the shoulders of the borough’s Department of Public Works, not the commission.
How it became generally accepted that the Environmental Commission was responsible for maintaining Bellhaven is anyone’s guess, DiMento said, especially since he recalls the borough promising to provide regular maintenance.
“I just wonder if somebody got it wrong,” he said. “I don’t want to be cynical, but what if someone just came up with something to cut us out of the (Bellhaven planning) process?”
An issue, presented at Tuesday’s meeting by Councilwoman Kathy Horgan, the commission’s liaison to the council, is that the Environmental Commission doesn’t have minutes from its meetings around the time it pushed for the development of Bellhaven. Though hardly a great legal mystery, some commission members were quick to point out that the burden of proof lies with the council to substantiate such claims.
Commission Vice Chair Andres Simonson also said he’s looked through council minutes from the Bellhaven era and has not been able to find language in any resolution that even suggests the Environmental Commission would be responsible for maintaining the 1.7-acre piece of riverfront property.
Frustration from the commission still lies with the idea that its been excluded from the process of determining what the best fit is for Bellhaven. Borough Administrator Stanley Sickles said that’s not the case; that the process is just in its earliest stages and that public discussion will come, some day.
Again, however, the commission has found a reason to disagree.
Late in 2011, Red Bank was awarded an open space grant from the county for $239,000. The grant, which the borough must match, was based on a submitted plan for a sprayground. Though Sickles has maintained that the plan isn’t final, that the ultimate result might not even be a sprayground, terms of the grant dictate that the funds must be used for the submitted plan or one that’s substantially similar in nature.
In the end, all of this may not even matter. According to a map from the State’s Department of Environmental Protection, a portion of the Bellhaven property may fall into Rank 4 of the Landscape Program, which seeks to prioritize land for protection. The ranking system is based on a scale of one to five, with one being the least environmentally sensitive and five being the most.
A 4 rank indicates that the land could be home to endangered species, which would make the prospect of seeking permits to turn Bellhaven into a sprayground that much more difficult.