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Public Pans ‘Pocket Park’ Plan

The Township Council heard from residents on January 12 during a virtual hearing involving a proposed park at Willow Avenue and New Brunswick Road.

Residents opposed to a proposed “Grandparents’ Park” in Somerset spent more than two hours January 12 expressing their feelings about the plan to the Township Council.

The Council held a special hearing on the plan, necessitated by the facts that the land – located at Willow Avenue and New Brunswick Road – was bought with Green Acres money and that a use change is needed for the park.

The approximately one acre of land is currently zoned for passive recreation, creating the estimated $550,000 park would mean a change in zoning to active recreation.

Township Councilman Will Galtieri (D-Ward 2) first came up with the idea for the park more than a year ago. Galtieri’s idea was for a “grandparents’ park,” which could include amenities such as a play area, trails, and a dog watering station.

Tara Kenyon, the township’s open space consultant, said the park would also feature a half-mile looped trail with benches, and that fitness equipment for adults would be installed near children’s playground equipment.

She said that other so-called grandparents’ parks in other parts of the country had proven popular, and organizations such as the AARP have recommended them.

Galtieri said the park would be sited on a portion of the roughly 25-acre overall area where trees had fallen after storms, and which had been cleared of stumped and downed trunks.

Galtieri said during the January 12 meeting that a 2012 recreation survey suggested the area for a park, but “much larger” than what is currently being proposed.

That didn’t mollify residents who had called in to the virtual meeting. Of the dozens who spoke, only one supported the idea.

Most objectors pointed out safety issues, such as what they said was the dangerous intersection of Willow and New Brunswick.

Township Manager Robert Vornlocker said that the township was planning “improved pedestrian safety measures” at that intersection, separate from the planned park, and that new striping to do that should be done by April.

Vornlocker also said the money for the park would come from the township’s Open Space Preservation Fund.

Other objectors said that putting a proposed fence around the area would push deer and other animals into yards and into the streets, where they could cause accidents.

Some residents said that the money should be put into buying more open space, and said there are plenty of parks in the township that are not used at all.

Jim D’Ambrosio, president of the Cedar Hill Swim Club – located next to the proposed park – said his members are opposed to the park, mainly for safety issues.

Also, he said, siting the proposed parking lot next to the club “will make the pool club an extension of the playground.”

Township resident Rob Kashinsky said he collected more than 1,500 signatures on a petition opposing the park. He said he sent the petition into the township earlier that day.

Noting the overwhelming opposition to the park, township resident Rob Trautmann said that he hoped “for once this council would listen to the people and say, we don’t need this park.”

Some Councilmember said they heard the message, loud and clear.

“I heard a lot of negative comments about the need and usefulness of this park,” Township Councilwoman Kimberly Francois (D-At Large) said. “Certainly, this is something we have to consider and take it to heart.”

“I want people to know that their comments and participation did not fall on deaf ears tonight,” she said.

“This is the first time I’m seeing so much participation on a particular issue,” Township Councilman Sivaraman Anbarasan (D-At Large) said. “These comments are important to us, we are going to consider them.”

Township Councilman Charles Onyejiaka (D-Ward 3), agreed, saying that “we are going to consider their opinions and ideas in making the final decision.”

“I listened to all of this and I think there are some major considerations and some minor considerations,” Township Councilman Ted Chase (D-Ward 1) said. “Sounds like we need to figure out a way to make that intersection safer, whether or not we put in a park, although I observe the entrance to the park is essentially a block away from the New Brunswick Road intersection.”

“I think it’s a real question that if existing parks are not being utilized, whether we need to build another park,” he said.

Deputy Mayor James Vassanella said that his main concern is safety.

“I will be looking particularly at the commentary had anything to do with safety, and of course the need is also important,” he said.

Mayor Phil Kramer said the park is “not a done deal. We really value your comments.”

Galtieri said that sometimes what the Council thinks is a good idea “doesn’t necessarily reflect the true public opinion. We do have to think long and hard on if our ideas are good ideas, or if we have to find other ways to better help the residents.”

There is now a two-week comment period on the plan, after which the Council may vote. The earliest that could happen, Vornlocker said, would by the second Tuesday of February.

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