UNION, NJ — A proposed development project of the Green Lane section of Union is getting plenty of backlash from residents of the area.
The Green Lane Development Project would call for development of what is currently known as the Kennedy Reservation, a 45-acre parcel of currently undisturbed open space that is part of the Green Lane section of the township that lies between Kean University and the Union train station.
On Feb. 14, Union’s township committee unanimously passed a resolution to submit an application for NJ Green Acres state funding for the project.
But most Green Lane area residents are voicing their objection to a development plan that they say will bring increased safety concerns, garbage, and noise.
Residents are also saying that despite the fact that the drawings for the project were made available for public viewing on the night of the Feb. 14 committee meeting, they did not find out about the project until several days after the resolution was passed — not from the committee, but from a newspaper article about the project.
In addition, the township’s deadline to send in the Green Acres application was February 15 — just one day after the resolution was passed — and residents are wondering why the township did not elicit community input before it was, what many are calling, a “done deal.”
In 2015, Union County and the township of Union joined together to develop their adjoining parcels.
The county parcel consists of approximately five acres, which was preserved in 2003 through the Open Space Trust Fund, according to Seb D’Elia, Union County spokesperson. The development plans for the county section includes a playground, walking trails, a restroom facility, parking, outdoor workout equipment and seating.
The parcel belonging to the township consists of approximately 40 acres, and will contain more than a mile of walking trails, which will connect to the county portion. The trails will also provide access to neighborhoods contiguous to the property, and will provide “cut-through” access to the train station, playground area, and Kean University.
The township is also considering the installation of a dog park on its portion of the park.
“The engineering and design portion of this project is fully under way,” D’Elia told LocalSource in a March 10 email. “The county and the township are each paying for construction on their own properties.”
According to D’Elia, the County Parks Department has set aside $1.8 million for the project, which it has not yet been expended.
“It’s a good project on its merits,” D’Elia said. “We want to be good partners to Union and to the community as a whole.”
For the county’s portion of land, the Union County Freeholder Board hired Remington and Vernick Engineers in 2016 for $86,000. The county also hired Neglia Engineering in 2015 for design and cost estimate, at a cost of $9,000, according to D’Elia.
But township residents told LocalSource that they are not about to allow the project to roll through without a fight. In addition, some residents claim that the township has no right to develop the land because when it was willed to the township by a Kean family member, it came with the stipulation that it remain as open and undisturbed land.
Shirley Gray, a lifelong resident of the township, told LocalSource in a recent phone interview that she remembers when it was discovered that the land was left to the township by a member of the Kean family, and was supposed to remain “as is” for 100 years.
“Someone from the Kean family willed it to the township,” Gray said. “All the property used to be part of the Kean estate. The person who left it wanted the land as it was and didn’t want it destroyed in any way.”
Gray, who grew up in Union and has lived on her block in the Green Lane section for more than 50 years, said that the reservation has already been destroyed by Kean University students, among others.
“The college kids go in there and drink and trash the place,” Gray said.
Now, said Gray, with the proposed project, things will get even worse.
“There will be no protection from the police and fire department,” Gray said. “Our taxes are going to go up and the price of our houses will go down. We’re paying high enough taxes as it is. We want open, preserved space.”
Gray also noted that there is a variety of wildlife in the reservation that will be displaced with the proposed development.
Colleen and Michael Zaccaria also live in the Green Lane neighborhood, and the two have spearheaded the campaign to keep residents informed and involved.
The Zaccarias say that continuous crime activity in the area, including vandalism, drugs, and public lewdness, will.only be enhanced by the addition of trails, playgrounds and a dog park.
Another issue cited by the Zaccarias is what they refer to as “systemic littering,” which they say is often done by Kean students, and that homeowners in the area continually clean the Kennedy Reservation without any assistance from the town. Garbage cited by the Zaccarias includes bottles, cans, drug paraphilia, and condoms.
Other issues, say the Zaccarias, include privacy infringement, excessive noise, and displacement of animals, birds, and other wildlife.
“Our backyard is this reservation,” Colleen Zaccaria told LocalSource in a recent phone interview. “We purchased this land and were told this was protected parkland.”
Zaccaria said that she and her family live just a block from Kean.
“It’s a freak fest,” Zaccaria said of the university’s students. “They have bonfires, they do paintballing, they jump the fences, and they come in with bags of liquor.”
Zaccaria said that the students also do drugs in the park, and she, along with other residents have found hypodermic needles all over the reservation.
According to Zaccaria, she has gotten no response from the township regarding the ongoing issues on the reservation, and that now these issues will only be exacerbated with the proposed development.
“I tried calling the township and the police,” Zaccaria said. “The township claimed it was federal property and they couldn’t help us.”
Zaccaria said that she attended a March 9 meeting held by the township for residents to discuss the project.
“There were residents there of all ages,” she said. “I know the township was floored. They had no idea so many people would come.”
According to Zaccaria, she along with other area residents have already put up with plenty of development in the .9-mile area.
“We’ve absorbed a lot,” Zaccaria said, noting that the train station, sports fields, condos, Elizabethtown Gas, and several businesses are just some of the projects that have moved into the small area of the township.
Zaccaria also said that there has been a lack of transparency on the part of the township, and that the township is discussing the project with residents long after the fact.
“We approached the township, and they said they were going to give us time to speak about it,” Zaccaria said, noting that the discussion was supposed to take place at a township committee meeting last month. “At the meeting, we were told that we couldn’t speak because they had taken it off the agenda. We have stayed quiet, but there does come a time. We’ve been railroaded. Now they’re in our backyard. How much more are they going to do to us?”
Union Mayor Suzette Cavadas told LocalSource that the township has been communicating with residents of the Green Lane area regarding the project.
“We always make it a point to get the input of the community before moving forward on a project,” Cavadas said in a March 17 email. “This can be seen with the Streetscape project taking place in Union Center, the proposed project at the Hawke’s Tavern site, etc. This project is no different.”
Cavadas said that the project is still in the planning phase.
“We are trying to gauge the wants and needs of the residents, since that is our primary goal,” Cavadas said. “The purpose of this park is to provide passive recreation opportunities using natural terrain to enhance quality of life and also provide a scenic and direct route for pedestrians and commuters to access Kean University, Morris Avenue, and the Union train station.”
Cavadas noted that the township held its first community meeting on the project, during which the township explained what was proposed from both the county and the township, and that the committee heard questions and feedback from the residents.
“Their comments were taken into consideration and we will be addressing them at a follow-up meeting on March 22 at the senior center on Bonnel Court,” Cavadas said.
As to the alleged stipulation of the will, Cavadas said that she was aware that it was brought up at the first community meeting.
“The township of Union is unaware of such restrictions, but we are currently looking into the matter,” Cavadas said.
Township attorney Dan Antonelli told LocalSource that the township is looking into concerns raised by the residents.
“The mayor and the township committee have taken and are taking their concerns under advisement,” Antonelli said in a recent phone call. “We’re doing our own internal review and will be reaching out to those residents.”
Michael Zaccaria told LocalSource that the project has been planned and executed behind the backs of residents
According to Zaccaria, he conducted a survey of 121 Green Lane area families. A total of 115 families expressed their opposition to the project, while just six of those families said that they did not care.
“Ninety-five percent of people who answered the door don’t want it,” Zaccaria said in a recent phone interview.
Zaccaria also called out the township for allowing trash, drugs, and crime go unchecked throughout the reservation for years.
“The township is suddenly cleaning it up because the state is coming in to do a site visit,” Zaccaria said.
Christine Backiel lives on the block where the proposed dog park would be constructed.
Backiel told LocalSource that she is concerned about the noise and smell generated by the dog park, as well as its close proximity to her house.
“The town hasn’t given us any sense of security or monitoring of the park,” Backiel said in a recent phone interview. “Now they’re just taking away more green land. Residents of the block don’t want it, and we’re all dog people.”
As for the proposed trails, Backiel said that the one trail they already have has caused myriad problems.
“We already have problems with one trail,” she said. “Why bring in three or four when they can’t even manage one? The township tried sugarcoating the whole thing.”
Backiel criticized the township committee for its lack of transparency as well.
“Everyone in that room was opposed to the development,” Backiel said of the March 9 meeting. “This type of meeting should have happened at the beginning of the process.”
Colleen Zaccaria said that she, along with other residents, feel as if they’ve been duped.
“This is a lot of good people getting impacted,” she said. “They’ve played us for fools.”