Ortley Beach passive park battle might be near the end
The Ocean County Utility Authority (OCUA) issues a resounding "no" to the request for use of their land as a park - but the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association (OBVTA) doesn't appear ready to acquiesce.
At the meeting, group members again brought their proposals to OCUA Chairman John Parker and his commissioners, but their vote appears to bring the matter - for now - to a close.
"It's overwith, no park, no public access," said Parker. "It's done, it's final, that's it...end of the line."
However, Parker did mention post-meeting that members of the OBVTA can certainly attend another public utility authority meeting.
"I'm done," said Parker. "I've been arguing with these people for 10 years."
OCUA bought the 5.24-acre tract along Route 35 in 1980, for $7,900,000. At the meeting, commissioners were given time to explain why they thought that a park should, or shouldn't, be developed on any part of it. Parker explains that a park is not the substantial matter at stake.
"This has to do with public access," said Parker. "We have buried concrete, we have buried conduit, we have 4400 three-phase electric over there...it's an industrial piece of property. We cannot allow the public to use that because of the liability of it."
So where do things go from here for the OBVTA?
"We, in the past had spoken to the Ocean County Freeholders, and they had said that they may be able to help us," said OBVTA president Paul Jeffrey, who added the Toms River Township Council approved a resolution supporting their goals.
However, the township is not in line to provide funding or maintenance, nor are there any associations, or organizations on board.
"We don't have anybody on hold to do that, and the reason we don't is because Chairman John Parker has been so negative about this for so long," said Jeffrey. "Until you see some signal that he is willing to move off his adamant position, then why should we take our time and effort to do that? We have to understand that."
For Jeffrey and his OBVTA supporters, the decision affords more time to develop a workable strategy.
"We'll have to go back and see whether there's another avenue," said Jeffrey. "Unfortunately the freeholders cannot have direct authority over this utility authority. Maybe we'll appeal to a higher authority."
Even with nearby Bay Side Park, owned by Toms River, and another piece of land featuring a soccer net and softball field, Jeffrey adds they were looking at the OCUA land because, "we have the basketball courts, we have the tennis courts in Bay Side Park but we don't have open green space."
Parker says they recently spent $340,000 to educate their own employees about the electricity, which adds to the list of his concerns for the land. The electricity on the property is above and below ground, Parker said, with concrete rebar also among the potential threats to unsuspecting visitors.
"You just can't open it up to the public, it's too dangerous...too dangerous," Parker stressed, adding that simply cleaing up the tract already cost $2,100,000.
"For anyone else to use this land...cleaning out all the rebar would be a great expense as well," Parker explained.
"We're not in the park business," Parker continued. "It's up to Toms River Township to build a park for these people in Ortley Beach," said Parker. "It's not the responsibility of the Ocean County Utility Authority. We treat raw sewage, we treat Barnegat Bay, (and) we try to make it safe environmentally for the people of Ocean and Monmouth Counties. We do not build parks."
The OCUA land has served many other purposes, including debris space following Superstorm Sandy.
"It was so valuable after Hurricane Sandy, because it was 50-foot high with junk piled on it," said Parker. "But it's a wonderful piece (of land) in case something happens."
Parker says they are prepared to open up the land again in the event of another natural disaster or emergency. Right now he adds they are letting Jersey Central Power & Light use the tract, free of charge, to replace battered utility poles on the northern barrier island.
Jeffrey concedes the tract's value as a natural disaster staging area, and says that OBVTA would have no problem letting OCUA take over, if need be.
"We have to be okay with that, they own the land" said Jeffrey. "If they truly need it for a project that requires all of their land, than that's fine."