County may fund pocket parks in urban towns

Voters will be asked
to approve increase
in open space tax

By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

Voters will be asked
to approve increase
in open space tax
By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

High-density towns like Red Bank, Eatontown, Long Branch and Freehold Borough may be able to carve out pocket parks and other green spaces for recreation if voters approve an additional $6 million in annual open space funding in November.

Helping urban towns preserve scarce open space is one of the initiatives behind a resolution approved by the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders last week. The initiative would raise open space funds from $10 million to $16 million annually.

The increase would raise the county open space tax rate by 1 cent, to 2.7 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, an annual cost of $54.40 on a $200,000 home.

At a public meeting held in Red Bank, the freeholders approved a resolution to place a nonbinding referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot that would set aside $2 million of the $6 million in funding for the Monmouth County Park System to undertake cooperative open space acquisition projects with municipalities.

"This bond issue is unique," said Freeholder Harry Larrison. "Of the $6 million bond issue, $4 million would be used for the acquisition of open space and $2 million for vest pocket parks in small municipalities. It will be a cooperative program with smaller towns to help generate funds to help towns out in their recreation programs and to help the children in those towns.

"I’m almost positive this bond issue will pass," he continued. "It’s a step in the right direction for this board to take into consideration the small towns, especially along the Bayshore. We owe it to future generations to back this bond issue."

But a candidate for a freeholder seat criticized the resolution to beef up the open space tax fund as a political move.

"My running mate and I have been critical that they’ve failed to assist towns along the Shore in acquiring open space," Jeffrey Pringle of Tinton Falls said at the meeting.

Pringle, who said he supports increasing the open space fund, and John Szeliga of Belmar are the Democratic candidates for freeholder seats currently held by Republican incumbents Larrison, freeholder director, and Thomas J. Powers.

"They’ve failed to provide recreational services to urban towns in Shore communities," he said. "Where were they 10 years ago? There’s not much left in the Shore area."

Pringle also criticized park system guidelines for open space acquisitions.

"You need to change your rules that don’t allow purchase of less than 100 acres, because there’s not much land left that fits the criteria. A lot of towns don’t have the ability to raise funds to purchase these tracts," he said.

He also faulted the county’s use of open space to build golf courses.

"I do not consider a golf course open space," he said. "Where is the passive recreation to just enjoy nature? People in Long Branch and Red Bank can’t afford to use the golf courses."

"Golf courses are a way of preserving open space and providing revenues," responded Larrison. "Their operation helps offset properties like Holmdel Park."

"How does that help kids in communities that can’t get to golf courses or Holmdel Park?" countered Pringle. "I applaud your effort in doing this, but you’re a little too late. Where are these 200- to 300-acre properties? Where are they left? What about the kids in Neptune, or here in Red Bank, who can’t get to Holmdel Park?"

According to Pringle, studies funded by his campaign show that areas of the county including the Atlantic coast, the Bayshore region and the Manalapan, Marlboro, Millstone area are underserved by regional and recreational parks.

"Acquisition of open space, especially in heavily developed areas such as Eatontown and Asbury Park, is a great idea and a positive step forward," said Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo. "However, I don’t think a tax is the way to do it. We’re asking for another tax to be imposed on residents of Monmouth County."

Tarantolo said he opposed placing a nonbinding referendum on the ballot in his municipality and instead supported establishment of an open space fund last year.

The $100,000 in the fund came from three revenue sources, he said, none of which was a tax on residents.

"We identified some surplus areas we felt would be ideal, like fees for recreation programs, and that’s what we’re doing," Tarantolo said.

"Local and county government has to stop thinking of taking the easy way out," he said. "There are other ways of doing it. We have to be a bit more innovative in how we use taxpayers’ money."

"[The initiative] is a wonderful idea and begins to address the needs of more urbanized communities," said Oceanport Mayor Gordon Gemma. "They [the freeholders] are finally beginning to look at the need to preserve the remaining tracts in areas that have already gone through the development process. Towns like Oceanport that are built up are the appropriate communities where it would apply because open space is dear."

The park system has a minimum acreage criteria for some park properties, explained Faith Hahn, supervising planner for the park system.

Minimum acreage for a regional park is 200 acres, and 75 acres for a recreation area, she said. At 11.7 acres, Mount Mitchill Scenic Overlook is classified as a special use area and is the park system’s smallest park area.

According to James Truncer, park system director, a $4 million open space tax was initiated by referendum in 1987, and voters approved an increase to $10 million in 1996.

Those referendums made possible the county’s acquisition of 129 parcels, totaling close to 3,300 acres in 20 parks. Park acreage currently totals more than 12,400 acres and the county’s goal is to preserve 19,000 acres as open space.

Monmouth County is currently the fourth largest county in the state in terms of population. According to the park system, its population is expected to grow by 13 percent to more than 696,000 residents by 2020.

Park system statistics show that last year the county’s 36 park areas had 4.1 million visitors.

Truncer said the county has no parameters for the size or type of parcels it will help municipalities acquire if voters approve the referendum.

Acquisitions through cooperative projects have included Fishermen’s Cove Conservation Area in Manasquan, West Turkey Swamp in Freehold Township and the Chase tract in Holmdel.

"Different communities have different needs," explained Hahn. "In one place a municipality may add to a conservation area; in another it may use the funding to provide water access. It’s whatever’s important in that town.

"If they show need, it would be considered," she added. "In a community like Sea Bright, it could be waterfront property where people can fish. It will be what the local need is."

Hahn acknowledged that the cooperative program was a response to criticism of the park system’s lack of facilities in urban towns.

"There were some complaints of ‘What are you doing for me?’ " she said, "because county parks are large, that’s true. We’re not going to site a county park in Red Bank. Where would you put it?

"The idea is there would be something for these communities," she said.

Hahn said municipalities would be able to apply for funding for any project in their development plans.

"It could be a half-acre if it provides 400 feet of bulkhead where people can go fish," she said, adding that the parcels will remain the property of the municipalities."