RAHWAY, NJ — Although the county and city are sharing costs to make close to $5 million in upgrades to the sports area of Rahway River Park, a grassroots group of residents are trying to stop the project.
According to county officials, discussions about upgrading the sports area of the park began in 2011. Then in 2012 the county began setting aside money for future improvements to the 40-year old soccer field and track in the park, which borders Rahway and Clark. The improvements would include a turf field and an eight-lane running track.
When Rahway city officials heard the county was thinking about upgrading the sports area in the park they said it was an opportunity to possibly join forces.
Mayor Sam Steinman explained the condition of Veteran’s Field in Rahway had deteriorated to such a degree that the high school could no longer reliably schedule home games. The idea to combine resources so any improvements the county made would allow the high school to use the facility for their home games seemed like a win.
For years Rahway High School has been without a football field because Veterans Park has been rendered virtually unusable due to flood problems. This left the high school without a home turf for football games and few options to find another one due to the high cost and lack of suitable open land.
So the city eventually approached the county suggesting they share in the cost for the turf field, lighting, restrooms, bleachers and a concession stand.
The county was in full support of such a venture because they felt residents in all towns could benefit because the high school only needed the field for five to seven home football games. This would leave the turf field open the rest of the time for other municipalities to use it for their sporting events.
Both Steinman and county officials explained that because there is such a demand for fields, meeting all the requests for reservations has been difficult. The addition of a turf field would ease this backlog, they said, and allow for more playing time year round.
Based on this, the two joined forces, agreeing the county would contribute $2.4 million towards the venture and Rahway $2.3 million.
Although Steinman and county officials saw this as a unique sharing of services, residents living in nearby Clark did not. In fact, they were so upset about these proposed upgrades to the park they formed a group called The Coalition to Save Historic Rahway River Park.
Since then misinformation has continued to surface about what would be built, which raised the ire of both coalition members and officials, who want the facts out there, not half-truths.
“The county wants to have a dialogue with the residents but when mischaracterizations occur, that becomes difficult,” said Union County Communication Director Sebastian D’Elia.
Freeholder Angel Estrada was concerned about the half-truths that have been making the rounds and tried to set the record straight.
“This is no Meadowlands. It’s a simple complex of 1,200 seats. This is a very moving and ongoing issue, but the reality is there will be more information as this develops,” said Estrada, adding that he believed “the kids deserve a place where they can play that is open to communities as a whole.”
The coalition, represented by president Kelly Tropeano, believes the money for this project will come out of taxpayers pockets not only in Rahway, but countywide. Because of this and many other reasons, they fully intend to stop the proposed stadium from ever being built in order to “preserve Rahway River Park as it was intended: a peaceful haven of relaxation, light recreation with natural open spaces to be enjoyed by both humans and local wildlife.”
“The coalition has maintained from the beginning that our issue is not with giving the children of Rahway an upgraded athletic facility, as we do agree they are in need of a safe and reliable place for their sporting events,” said Tropeano, arguing the upgrades should not be done in Rahway River Park due to the impact it would have on the park’s ecosystem and surrounding neighborhoods.
The county has flatly denied the coalition’s accusation, noting the proposed upgrade of the sports field will not impact the wildlife in the area, or cause traffic and parking issues.
Tropeano said it was “thoughtless and naïve” of city and county officials to think a stadium will not have any impact on the park’s wildlife, let alone parking and traffic.
One Rahway resident who stepped to the microphone during the freeholder board meeting said he was very concerned about the 110 species of birds in the park, in addition to six species of ducks and several types of owls, not to mention the resulting parking problem that would occur.
Steinman explained many spectators carpool to football games, while the teams go by bus. Additionally, he pointed out that Rahway River Park is traditionally busiest during the summer months, while school athletic games are typically held during the spring and fall.
“This project is sensible and not as blown up as some have made it out to be. The field will be built upon what is already there and will preserve the natural beauty of the park,” the Rahway mayor said.
Another resident of Rahway, Robert Carson, a soccer coach for the last 20 years, said Rahway River Park “is a gem that is rare in Union County.”
“I think there is a lot of clarification that needs to be done,” he told the freeholder board, mentioning that turf is “toxic and can reach a temperature of 160 degrees in summer.”
Jeff Freeman, a Rahway resident for 31 years, lives adjacent to the park. He told the freeholder board he was very concerned about the impact such a project would eventually have on his home value.
“For myself and neighbors, this would drastically reduce our property values,” he said.
Freeholder Board Chairman Mohamed Jalloh explained that plans were in the early stages and the county fully intended to have a public meeting on the matter as soon as things were finalized.
“There are no contractors hired, no resolution has been drafted or approved, but there will be a presentation on this in the future,” said the freeholder chairman.
County officials also put together several fact sheets to clarify the half-truths circulating, specifically that the turf field and track were not original to the design of the park.
D’Elia pointed out that a contract signed by Percival Gallager of the Olmsted Brothers firm on March 6, 1925 explained what uses there would be in the park when it was conceived. The designation then, he said, was for football and track, even though currently it is only being used for soccer and track.
Officials felt the coalition also put statements on Facebook that greatly exaggerated the size of the project. For example, although the coalition continues to say there will be 5,000 bleacher seats, that was reduced to 1,200 after input from residents and officials.
At a recent freeholder meeting county manager Al Faella said that although a four-foot chain link fence would be erected around the track, it will not be locked. The fence, he explained, will be a standard safety upgrade.
“It’s purpose is to discourage unsafe and potentially damaging use of the track, for example by off-road or motorized vehicles,” Faella added.
The county manager also addressed the issue of any of the upgrades violating state environmental regulations.
“Any work we do will undergo the required reviews by the DEP and other regulators,” Faella said, bringing up yet another point that he felt had been misrepresented by the objecting residents.
“This park is not on the state or town historic register,” he said, noting that while Rahway River Park is certainly eligible to be on the historic register, it is not.
Faella also mentioned that there has been information circulating that the new field will encroach on at least one existing baseball field and this “is absolutely false. There will be no encroachment on any baseball field.”
Rahway Business Administrator Cherron Rountree also spoke on the issue during the freeholder board meeting, expressing concern that many of the facts involved with the upgrades to the park were not reaching the public.
Rountree said that although rumors continue to persist that thousands of people would be attending the five to seven Rahway High School home football games during the fall months, that was not accurate.
“While I would love to say we have thousands of people coming out to our games, we actually only have a few hundred,” the city business administrator said.
Steinman has responded to letters and emails sent by Tropeano and concerned residents living in Rahway and Clark, in an attempt to dispel rumors.
“The current proposal is to build a multi-purpose athletic field, but this is not intended to be a stadium,” he said in one response letter, pointing out the improvements would be “largely in the footprint of the current field.”
Steinman also said it was Rahway that asked the county to add the two team pavilions, scoreboard, bleachers, press box and small concession stand with bathrooms.
“This would be built at Rahway’s expense,” the Rahway mayor said.
“The freeholders have been gracious enough to work with us on this project which will result in a better facility not only for Rahway residents but residents throughout the county,” the mayor added.