County aims to attract boaters to Raritan River

Sources: Middlesex County, NJDOT, NJDEP and HDRSources: Middlesex County, NJDOT, NJDEP and HDR

Does the Raritan River have the potential to be a regional attraction for boaters?

With that question in mind, Middlesex County officials are looking for ways to promote their 16-nautical-mile stretch of the river, and have selected locations in towns along its banks as a prime place for recreational boaters to visit.

According to the Raritan Riverfront Strategy Plan that was prepared for the county and the Middlesex County Improvement Authority (MCIA) by HDR, and released on Oct. 31, the goal of the Raritan River Project is to "evaluate the potential of improving the navigability of the Raritan River, and to provide an opportunity for increased recreational and boating traffic."

"The idea here is to get people to come upriver, which normally doesn’t happen," Jane Leal, director of administration for the MCIA, said of the project.

JEFF GRANIT staff Boat ramps such as this one are proposed along with more marinas and fuel docks to help make the Raritan and South rivers regional boating destinations.JEFF GRANIT staff Boat ramps such as this one are proposed along with more marinas and fuel docks to help make the Raritan and South rivers regional boating destinations.

"I think what’s important here is to coordinate the efforts of all the towns that have projects underway and help move projects along," Leal said. "We like to do anything we can to boost their efforts."

"This will open up the Raritan for recreational boating. People can come up from Sandy Hook or in from the Arthur Kill, dock their boat and enjoy," county Freeholder Director David B. Crabiel said. "It opens up the Raritan for good, clean fun."

Crabiel noted that the proposal only addresses recreational boat traffic, and does not make provisions to draw commercial vessels.

The county is currently applying for permits, and coordinating all the different federal, state and county agencies that will need to work on the first phase of the plan, according to Leal.

According to Crabiel, the county expects to conclude the permit process by Labor Day. If the permits are granted, dredging would take about 90 days, he said. Crabiel estimated the cost of the project at $7 million and said the county hopes to receive grants to cover approximately half that amount.

"The trouble with some interest groups is that they don’t want to see any change to the Raritan," he said. "I would like to see it look like Baltimore Harbor, which is beautiful."

The plan splits the towns along the river into four districts.

In the Gateway District, which lies at the mouth of the river closest to Raritan Bay and serves as the entrance to the Raritan, waterfront facilities in Perth Amboy and South Amboy will entice boaters to explore the river.

The River Bend District, which is composed of Edison, Sayreville and Woodbridge, is slated to attract boaters farther up the river with specialized facilities geared toward boaters, including expanded public and private marina space, and fueling stations, as well as mixed-use developments such as the envisioned Raritan Village seaport.

The South River District, which includes East Brunswick and the borough of South River, would provide an offshoot for boaters to explore the towns along the South River, a tributary of the Raritan.

Finally, projects in the Up River District, which is composed of New Brunswick, Highland Park and the Rutgers University campuses, will be the final destination for boaters, according to the plan.

The catalyst for promoting the Raritan River project, according to the plan to market the river as a destination to the boating public, would be the New Brunswick Landing — a temporary docking station from which boaters could access downtown New Brunswick’s restaurants and entertainment facilities after what the study estimates to be a five- to seven-minute walk to reach downtown.

A pedestrian overpass would link the D&R Canal — where the boats would dock — with Richmond Street by carrying visitors across Route 18.

"Improving access to the downtowns with restaurants and entertainment venues will bring new patronage and attract activity up the river," according to the plan.

Leal said that installing the floating dock at a site upriver to start would help other towns downriver generate interest in their projects.

A survey of boaters conducted by the county showed a strong interest in that type of facility, Leal said.

With that goal in mind, the plan proposes a coordinated marketing program to promote the river as a destination, in addition to expanding recreational boating opportunities.

As a way to attract boaters up toward the downtown districts of New Brunswick and Highland Park, the plan envisions a series of mixed-use development projects, using existing and new marina and docking facilities, potential water taxis and commuter ferries to move people up the river, environmental education centers, and a web of greenways and river walks to link parts of the project together.

Of the area in Middlesex County included in the study, 17 percent of the land is vacant, 15 percent is wetlands, 21 percent is water, 6 percent is commercial, 9 percent is industrial, 7 percent belongs to utilities and open space occupies 3 percent, according to the plan.

The middle portion of the river, spanned largely by Raritan Center in Edison and Woodbridge, primarily contains industrial and employment centers, while Sayreville’s portion of the banks holds the National Lead property, where a chemical manufacturing plant operated until 1982.

The municipalities along the river contain a high concentration of contaminated sites, including landfills, National Lead and the site of the former Raritan Arsenal, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s inventory of known contaminated sites and brownfields areas.

Brownfields are former or current commercial or industrial sites that are presently vacant or underutilized, on which there is suspected contamination in the soil or groundwater.

Included among those sites are several defunct landfills and one operating land­fill that line the river. In Edison, Kin Buc I, Kin Buc II and the Industrial Land Reclamation (ILR) are considered con­taminated sites, as is the 315-acre Edge­boro Landfill in East Brunswick, operated by the Middlesex County Utilities Au­thority (MCUA).

Edgeboro, which is the only active landfill in the county, receives municipal solid waste.

Robert Spiegel, executive director of the Edison Wetlands Association, was critical of the county’s emphasis on mak­ing recreational plans and developing the Raritan and its banks without placing greater emphasis on cleaning it up.

"[The county] is putting the cart before the horse," Spiegel said. "The only [operating] landfill in the county is their responsibility and it’s leaking solid waste into the river.

"They need to get their own house in order before they dredge for recreational purposes," Spiegel added.

Edgeboro is run by a private company and the county does not bear responsibility for its violations, Crabiel said.

Spiegel cited a 1998 agreement be­tween the DEP, the MCUA and Edgeboro Disposal Inc. to clean up the shoreline in areas three and four of the landfill, which has not been fulfilled.

The Edison Wetlands Association, along with the NY/NJ Baykeeper, called on the DEP last week to take the most stringent enforcement action possible on Middlesex County, the MCUA and Edge­boro Disposal, the company which oper­ates the landfill.

"Edgeboro has not been cooperative with the department in completing this important project, and their continued de­lays will no longer be tolerated. We are reviewing the situation for possible en­forcement actions to ensure that the shoreline restoration is completed," DEP Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell wrote in a Dec. 16 letter to the Edison Wetlands Association (EWA).

The letter also states that Edgeboro provided an "unacceptably long" cleanup schedule to the DEP in October. Accord­ing to the letter, the DEP set Dec. 31, 2004, as completion date for the cleanup project.

When asked what type of pollution is coming out of Edgeboro, Spiegel said, "bottles, plastic — basically anything that floats."

"Pollution flowing out of there is con­stant," he added. "This has been going for decades."

Greg Remaud, preservation director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper, said that any re­development along the river should have a "clear overall vision."

He described the county plan as "piecemeal," and in need of a "broader re­gional outlook."

However, he said that a proper rede­velopment of the Raritan in Middlesex County has great potential.

"When you piecemeal it, you’ll have problems," he said. "We think there is a great opportunity to do it correctly here."

Both Spiegel and Remaud said they were wary of "cookie-cutter" development along the river, and said they felt the county and municipalities may imple­ment ideas that were successful else­where but would be wrong for the Rari­tan.

"Not everywhere can be Baltimore," Spiegel said.

Leal said the county has been con­scious of including strong environmental components in the plan, and that envi­ronmental organizations including the EWA and Baykeeper were invited to comment on the project.

Dredging near the National Lead site was dropped after environmental groups raised concerns, she said.

"The environment has been a consid­eration all along," she said. "We want to keep as much of the natural environment along the river as possible."

Attracting boaters upriver would help boost tourism and the local economy, Leal said.

"What we’re trying to do is achieve a balance here," she said. "We’re taking a lot of individual projects and giving a vi­sion to them."

— Alison Granito