Environmental Commission Fights for Relevance
Feeling overlooked by the borough and its professionals, the Red Bank Environmental Commission takes a stand.
Red Bank’s Environmental Council serves in an advisory capacity to the borough’s council, offering its opinion on its varied projects and plans, large and small, with a consideration for their impact on the environment, open space, and public access for the community at large.
But even best intentions can’t make their ideas official.
When it came to the bulkhead at the Red Bank Public Library, the commission recommended creating a living shoreline to replace the failing and outdated barrier. Red Bank disagreed. Community gardeners, backed by the commission, sought to place their garden on riverside borough property. Red Bank decided it wasn’t the best fit. Recently, the commission has tried to give its opinion on what it feels is the best fit for the Bellhaven preserve. Early proposals from Red Bank have come without commission input.
Of course, Red Bank has its reasons for the decided difference of opinion from the Environmental Commission’s. Legitimate ones, too. The succession of the commission’s failure to have its ideas more broadly considered, however, has left its board members feeling frustrated and marginalized.
At a recent commission meeting, the board used the platform not only to discuss two of the issues Red Bank has gone in other directions with, but to publicly announce their misgivings with the interactions with the borough and its professional staff.
Commission Chair Laura Bagwell expressed her concerns with the borough’s preliminary plans to turn Bellhaven into a sprayground, a playground that includes water activities for children. Though the borough has maintained that it has no set plan for the small parcel of land at the end of Locust Avenue on the west side of Red Bank, it did come up with the proposal, design and estimate for the sprayground and even earned an open space grant for $239,000 from Monmouth County for that specific use.
Bagwell said she attempted to reach out to T&M Associates, the borough’s contracted engineering consultant, by email for some information about the proposed park. Instead of getting what she wanted, Bagwell said she was treated like an idiot and told, essentially, that the Environmental Commission didn’t need to be involved in the process.
Other members noted phone calls and emails to borough officials requesting information or access to records have often gone unanswered over significant periods of time.
“The crux of our concern is that we haven’t had the opportunity to consider it or not,” she said of the sprayground. “We want to lend our hand to support.”
Borough Administrator Stanley Sickles, on hand to explain Red Bank’s motivation for the Bellhaven site and the library bulkhead, as well as face the frustrated board’s questioning – though perhaps unaware of that motivation prior to the start of the meeting – dispelled the notion that turning Bellhaven into a sprayground was some sort of clandestine operation.
The fact is, he said, there has been no final determination for what will ultimately come of Bellhaven, despite the borough’s plans. The idea for the sprayground was first conceived by the Parks and Recreation Department, which was looking to put the space to better use and give the children of the west side better park access. When the borough saw that money was available for open space from the county, it decided to pursue it.
Bellhaven has a certain significance to the Environmental Commission. Not only does it represent the only mostly natural space in Red Bank, but it was the commission that fought to turn the blighted property into a preserve a little more than a decade ago.
Sickles was quick to point out that the property, which members of the previous commission promised to maintain, has become overgrown, with phragmites shielding views into and outside of the preserve. It’s also become a haven for criminal activity, police Chief Steve McCarthy said. A gazebo that once stood at the end of the preserve’s path was recently removed after it was set fire to one night.
Sickles said they’re only in the planning stages of the first phase and that the final design will come after the borough’s decided, with public input and input from the Environmental Commission, the best use for the site and the best use for the open space funds granted by the county.
“(The plan) hasn’t gone past the proposed design. Nothing’s been done. No one’s been kept out of the loop,” he said. “We’re just going through the process.”
Still, the idea of taking away what was an Environmental Commission-conceived project without directly involving the commission isn’t sitting well with some of the board’s members.
“From day one we’ve wanted to be kept abreast of the situation, and that hasn’t been the case,” Board Secretary Steven Mitchell said. “That’s the issue.”
But while Sickles promised to keep the lines of communication open going forward, it may not matter when it comes to Bellhaven or other projects. Ultimately, the elected council is responsible for determining the best course of action for every situation that comes before it, environmental or otherwise.
A day following the meeting Red Bank Mayor Pat Menna bristled at the larger insinuation that Red Bank has not acted in the town’s best interest in its recent environmental considerations. The problem is, he said, is that the council has an obligation to look at every angle of an issue. While he appreciates the thorough and insightful work of the Environmental Commission, he said it doesn’t behoove the borough to make decisions that come from an intentionally myopic point of view.
Sometimes the best environmental decision isn’t the best decision for Red Bank.
In regards to the library bulkhead, the borough is concerned that specific wording in the deed written by the Eisner family granting ownership to Red Bank could cause the borough to lose the property if it goes with a living shoreline. On the issue of the community garden – one that dragged on for more than a year before being shelved indefinitely – Menna said gardeners were offered several opportunities to plant, just not at their preferred site along the river. When told they could plant at several other sites, the gardeners balked, he said.
“Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “You have to take a look at the whole need. This council has been very active in promoting open access and securing funding to support it.
“I challenge them to say what other administration has done more (for the environment).”