UNION, NJ — Union residents knocked down the township’s plans to utilize parts of Kennedy Reservation for a recreation area six months ago, and now designs for a county park there are also receiving heat.
Union spokeswoman Natalie Pineiro said the township pulled its Green Acres funding application after receiving pushback from residents on the Green Lane Development Project. The project was to be a joint effort between the county and township, which owns 40 acres of the largely wooded 45-acre site. The county wants to build a park on one of its acres.
“They were very very gracious to us on doing the right thing,” Colleen Zaccaria, a resident of the Green Lane area, said about the town scrapping the development plans.
About 25 residents attended an Aug. 29 county meeting in the Municipal Building and raised concerns about safety, policing and other anticipated disruptions. The meeting was one required by state regulators.
The residents do not want any of the reservation to be developed because they’re afraid it will attract more of what they claim is already taking place there. They say Kean University students are vandalizing the area, which borders the rear of the campus, and are using it as a drug den. Other residents expressed concerns that wildlife may be displaced.
The proposed design plans for the county park were created by Remington & Vernick Engineers and include a parking lot, jungle gym, seating, fitness equipment, walkways and lighting that shuts off after sunset.
The plans for the “pocket park” have not gone out to bid yet, Union County spokesman Sebastian D’Elia said. The county purchased its 5 acres in 2003 from the YM-YWHA of Union for $3 million, paying with Open Space and Green Acres trust funds, he said.
Residents say developing the area will not deter people from using the reservation after dark.
“They’re in there at night already,” resident Michael Zaccaria said after the meeting on Aug. 29. “Now, you’re going to put trails in there at night. No lighting. What’s going to happen?”
Kean University President Dr. Dawood Farahi invited Union residents who live near the reservation to a question-and-answer session in May, mostly to discuss new residence halls. Residents also discussed their concerns at that time, accusing Kean students of conducting hazing ceremonies in the area, among other activities.
“Dr. Farahi made it clear at the meeting that Kean University is ready to work with the township of Union to address their concerns,” university spokeswoman Margaret McCorry told LocalSource on Aug. 31. “Since then, university and township leaders have met to discuss plans moving forward.”
She said Kean’s Center for Leadership and Service has reached out to the Union Recreation Department to arrange for its students to do community service in Union, adding that Kean students would be willing to volunteer as regular clean-up crews in the reservation, too.
Colleen Zaccaria said she wants the Kean president to personally address students in an orientation speech and tell them to stop using the reservation for unscrupulous purposes.
Meanwhile, Union Police Director Daniel Zieser told LocalSource that during the month of August two Elizabeth men were arrested in an incident at the reservation, but said he was unsure whether they were Kean students. One man was arrested for allegedly smoking marijuana and another for an outstanding warrant, he said.
Police received one call from area residents around 9 p.m. on Aug. 2, he said. Since Aug. 1, police have been to the reservation 89 times, Zieser added.
“When you walk through there, it’s easy to hide,” Zieser said, referring to the trees which make it difficult for cars to patrol. “It’s tough to get back in there and do what we do.”
County police are responsible for the county-owned acreage, the county spokesman said. Township police are responsible for the township’s property, Zieser said. Both said there could be some crossover between departments.
Residents pointed to a fire that occurred at the nearby Bill Kolb Park in March as what could happen if a park were established on the reservation. Zieser said no arrests were made in that incident.
Some at the Aug. 29 meeting were frustrated that several questions went unanswered. Only Freeholders Angel Estrada and and Vernell Wright attended the meeting, and they left before it ended.
Residents addressed their questions to Assistant County Counsel Kevin Campbell. The next regular county freeholders meeting will take place Sept. 14, at 10 Elizabethtown Plaza at 7 p.m., where a public comment time will be available.