Environmentalists Fear Maple Cove Loss

Administrator Stanley Sickels says fears are unfounded

The notion of removing two unencumbered parcels of land that sit at the foot of Maple Avenue on the Navesink River from Red Bank's protected open space inventory list has catapulted the tide of environmentalists' fear from strong undercurrent to Tsunami status.

The root of the fear about the site that's been dubbed Maple Cove: that officials won't know what the public's got 'til it's gone; and, that taking what are parking lots off the list will put them in danger of being sold to a private developer, thus cutting off the final swath of open riverfront access left in the borough.

Such fear, officials have reiterated, is unfounded. Still it fueled an environmental fight launched by those with less self-professed faith in officials.

At what was thought would be a sparsely-attended, in-between-holidays required public hearing on Monday night, people packed the borough's meeting room. Most were armed with an arsenal of evidence as to why the pieces of parking space along the river need the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)-enforced layer of protection.

Councilwoman-elect Cindy Burnham has been the lead champion of the preservation cause. She has been visceral about it, insisting that Red Bank officials' sole motivation for removing the site from the inventory list is to clear it for sale — specifically to neighboring Hovnanian corporation's headquarters.

And when Burnham brought it up again, Sickels retorted, "You're saying something that is not true."

As proof of her conjecture, she said she knew of an appraisal on the site that was ordered in the past. Borough Administrator asked if she had proof of that in the form of an invoice and/or resolution hiring an appraiser. She did not.

But, that didn't stop her and a meeting room full of environmentalists, including representatives from the NJ Sierra Club, Clean Ocean Action and the American Littoral Society, from defending the cause.

That cause, in this matter, is to keep the site pristine and dedicated permanently to active and passive recreation without the inching in of private ownership intrusion that they think removing the open space label will invite.

Not so, Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels retorted to an audience member who had asked for his repeated assurance each with each mention of the fear of open space and river access loss.

"The river access at Maple Cove is not in jeopardy," Sickels said. "I've said it multiple times. We have a waterfront access plan. We require easements of the properties that develop along the waterfront. We have evidence of that.

"We have even had offers to improve the waterfront access of that location by developers who subsequently couldn't go through with it because of the downturn in the market, but that never developed because of that.

"There has never been any action by this council to remove access to the water at Maple Cove. Never."

In a borough that is bordered by the Navesink River, boasted on its logo, there's little to no public access to it, most who spoke maintained. Maple Cove is the last roughly 60 feet of it.

Whether or not the pieces of land that the borough has, inadvertently or not, allowed to be used for corporate and library parking will manifest into private ownership is not a risk, small as it may be, environmentalists want to see taken with the removal from the state Recreation and Open Space Inventory (ROSI) list.

"To your comment that you bought these lots for parking for the library … Well, I think you bought these lots because a developer went belly up and you could catch these two lots for $25,000," Burnham said to Sickels. "Anybody would pick that up.

"I think the fact that this is surrounded by Hovnanian is very telling (as to why) you are looking to take this off the ROSI …"

Red Bank officials have said that the sites need to be taken off the ROSI list because they are used for paid parking that does not solely serve the users of the Maple Cove active and passive recreational site.

The DEP, in a recent correspondence, has confirmed that and required that officials, if they wish to continue using the parking for other purposes, then apply to have it taken off the ROSI.

Borough officials have said the parking lot areas were mistakenly on the list and the DEP agreed, but mandated that the borough go through the hearing process to see if the public concurs. Judging by the hearing, most do not.

It is a DEP mandate that once a swath of land is on the ROSI and/or purchased with DEP Green Acres Program grant money, it must only be used for that purpose, or the town in which the land lies will risk losing open space funding for that and other projects.

The borough, as a result, had funding withheld and a Green Acres-funded park revamp project delayed until steps were taken to resolve the Maple Cove issue, Sickels said, upping the cost of the project for the borough.

Many felt that even if the parking lot areas are mistakenly on the list, then so what? Why go through the trouble of taking them off the ROSI just to provide a small amount of parking to those who aren't using the site for dedicated recreation?

"This whole notion of mistake. That seems to be what brought us here. I once made a mistake and put too much cheese on lasagna. It turned out delicious," environmental activist Andres Simonson said. "What's the point? Why worry about this mistake? Let's enjoy our creation."

After reading a letter supporting all preservation efforts at Maple Cove in the stead of American Littoral Society Director Tim Dillingham, Kathleen Gasienica, a Red Bank resident who is president of the society, weighed in herself on the "mistake" and parking notions.

"You've spoken often about your dedication to water access, and I really question your commitment to water access when you try to remove parcels of land that support that access," she said. "As Tim Dillingham said (in his letter), without the supporting parking space for people to get to that access, there is really no meaningful access to that river.

"Also, I can't imagine that the diversion of 10 parking spots has any real effect on the support of downtown businesses."

Why bother? Because "our hand was forced in this," Sickels said. "We were willing to let it go, but unfortunately they forced us to take action. So, that's why we're here."

But, most who spoke reiterated, if the borough was willing to keep the parking restricted to support passive or active recreation, there would be no issue either.

The public comments will be forwarded to the DEP for review and the DEP will decide in 2014 whether or not the borough can remove the parcels from the ROSI.

Click here for the borough's application to DEP for removal from the ROSI and supporting documentation on the Maple Cove issue. Letters from Clean Ocean Action and the American Littoral Society were entered into the record. Sickels requested copies of all.


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