RAHWAY, NJ — Members of the Coalition to Save Rahway River Park, spearheaded by residents in Clark and Rahway, are now distributing hundreds of yard signs reading “stop the stadium” at Rahway River Park, where grassroots opposition to the Union County proposal is gaining steam.
More people are getting involved in the movement than ever before, said members of the Coalition, as the upgrade itself inches towards potential Department of Environmental Protection approval.
The $5 million project will add 1,200 seat bleachers, pavilions and more to the park’s existing sports complex, if approved, and will replace Veteran’s Field as Rahway High School’s new venue for sports events, changes which first roused Coalition members into action last October, said Scott Aruta, a Clark resident.
For the Coalition, the list of reasons to oppose the park spans the length of a novel. Their lawyer, said Aruta, wrote a 195-page plea to the DEP. Their environmental engineer wrote another 65 pages. The short explanation, though, is they believe the proposed changes will tarnish the park.
“Everybody says I came here as a kid, my parents brought me here, my grandparents brought me here, I spent my whole life walking in the park, and I don’t want it destroyed,” said Aruta. “A lot of people who retired from Clark and Rahway, they’re in Florida or Arizona or wherever, they have related stories about how ‘I don’t live there anymore, but this story meant everything to me.’ People are really invested in this.”
Gathering support through the winter, was slow at first, added Aruta. After two months of signature hunting, in January and February, he only had 18 signatures. But a social media blitzkrieg spread awareness throughout local communities, and as of this week, more than 4,600 people have signed the Coalition’s online petition on www.change.org.
“The Facebook page went live towards the end of March. We immediately started climbing in people who liked and joined,” said Aruta. “And as an aside, every time someone signs the petition and leaves a comment, that signature and comment are e-mailed to the Rahway City Council, the Rahway Board of Education, the Rahway Mayor, the Clark City Councils, the Clark Mayor and all of the Freeholders. That’s 27 people. A total of 120,000 emails have been sent out.”
That flood of support is being noticed beyond the county’s borders. The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit which wants to “help safeguard our priceless heritage for future generations,” according to its website, recently joined other conservancy organizations, such as The Sierra Club, in denouncing the Rahway River Park proposal.
Those statements of approval are a game changer for the Coalition, according to its members, who are against the project for a variety of reasons.
It will change the footprint of the park, they say, and endanger local wildlife. Artificial turf, which will replace grass at the sports complex, causes kids “major problems,” said Aruta. Rahway High School wants to use the upgrade in order to replace Veteran’s Field, due to flooding issues, but according to the Coalition, which asked the Rahway Historical Society for further information, the field has only closed for 10 games since 1940.
Also among the more pressing issues, they believe, is that there isn’t enough parking to support 1,200 spectators, in addition to the park’s regular visitors.
“Once you put a big stadium here, the view that Olmsted designed — the feeling of openness — is totally gone, and this is going to be the dominant factor of the entire park. They’re saying that they don’t need a parking lot, but there’s 400 parking spaces. Next year they’ll be felling all the trees and taking the barbeque pit for parking lots. It’s inevitable,” said Leigh Daniels, a Cranford resident. “On weekends here, you cannot find a parking space.”
The county, according to the Coalition, is trying its best to ignore the public outcry, an accusation with which the Board of Chosen Freeholders is familiar.
When prompted in debate or by residents, the freeholders have addressed the Rahway River Park proposal in the past few weeks, including as recently as a meeting on Thursday, Oct. 8, where they defended the proposal and their own involvement.
Freeholder Bruce Bergen said there’s “already a football field, there’s already a track” at the park, that misinformation is regularly spread concerning the upgrade, and that the county believes changes to the footprint will be minimal. Chairman Mohammed Jalloh said that while the freeholders are listening to residents’ complaints, they still believe the project is for the best, and won’t engage in a conversation where the sides disagree on the facts.
“A statement was made about the freeholders not listening or hearing. And I disagree with that. Just because people don’t agree with you doesn’t mean they’re not listening, or hearing what you say. There have been various meetings where numerous people have got up here to speak to the board, and they have, in fact, stood in line at one point or another, to speak before the board,” said Jalloh. “I know for myself, living very near, and within probably 200 feet of a stadium — by the definition of the speaker here today, but I would call it a field — that I’ve made a decision, that this is something I support going forward, that’s consistent with what’s going on in other places.”
The Democratic Freeholders were responding to local residents, who have been showing up to typically empty county meetings in droves of up to 40 people, according to Aruta. That’s because, to the Coalition, the freeholders are threatening to ruin a “piece of art,” said Aruta, which has a “subconscious effect that basically renews your spirit.”
And while similar changes have been made to other parks, including Warinanco Park in Roselle, which Coalition members agree was originally intended for spectator use, the Coalition sees this latest proposal as part of a trend for “monetization of parks.” It’s a broad issue, they said, which comes at the expense of beautiful landscapes, open lawns, wildlife and more.
“It’s something we don’t want to see in this park, but it’s really part of the bigger picture, as a land grab that’s going on to take open space from parks. And this is just a little more of the same thing,” said Daniels. “We want to stop it here.”