By John Burton
RED BANK – Confusion, controversy and competing allegations abound over the alleged plans for two properties of borough-owned space.
A kerfuffle has developed over the property commonly called Maple Cove, located at the northern tip of Maple Avenue overlooking the Navesink River, and 94 W. Front St., a small portion of green space next to the public library, and portions of those properties used for parking.
The controversy involves Councilwoman Cindy Burnham, a Republican who formally took office on Jan. 1, who has been long at odds with the Democratically controlled council, including over issues related to the two properties.
Borough officials said they have applied to the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Green Acres program to amend the borough’s Recreation and Open Space Inventory (ROSI) to remove portions of the two properties used for parking. Officials maintain the areas dedicated for parking were incorrectly listed to the inventory.
Burnham, however, said she suspects other motives. She has long charged that officials have wanted to sell the Maple Cove property and by getting the DEP’s permission to remove it from the list, it would allow that to occur.
“To say it was put on by mistake is absurd and an insult to my and anyone’s intelligence,” Burnham said.
The properties have been listed on the ROSI for close to three decades. Borough officials have reviewed the list and sought other changes numerous times during that period, she said.
Burnham also maintains the plan is not just to omit a portion of the sites from the list but to eliminate the entire properties, thereby allowing a sale.
As evidence, Burnham points to a collection of press accounts, dating back to 2008, when Menna and other officials commented on the potential sale of the underutilized Maple Avenue property to help fund the municipal budget and take more burden off taxpayers.
Burnham continues to allege the plan is to sell the Maple Cove location to K. Hovnanian Homes, which has its world headquarters next door at 110 W. Front St.
Mayor Pasquale Menna said that Burnham’s allegations of a planned sale of the properties are “false.”
“I can assure you the property is not going to be sold. It’s not going to be removed in its entirety,” Menna said. “Somehow the parking and public use will be protected.”
Parking is the issue that seems to be at the core of the controversy.
A few years ago, Burnham and some volunteers worked to clean up and improve the Maple Cove property, transforming it from an unused and trash-strewn lot into a small park that provides the public with direct access to the river. Her actions did not sit well with officials who said at the time Burnham was usurping local authority for a site that had strict state environmental oversight.
Burnham again locked horns with the council over the 94 W. Front St. site, as she and others demanded officials allow residents use it as a community garden. Borough officials refused. The garden eventually was established on another small piece of borough-owned property.
Burnham further balked when the borough striped the parking area on the property and installed a parking pay station – which has since been removed – allowing the public to use the paid spaces. In response, she sent a letter the DEP complaining it was a violation of DEP rules, saying parking should be limited to park users.
That was verified by DEP spokesman Bob Considine, who said in an email, that the Green Acres program allows for paid parking at park locations but the money has to be dedicated to the park or local park system. The regulations, however, do not allow general public parking in lots encumbered by parks.
That also calls into question the borough’s Marine Park, which has paid parking stalls, possibly used by patrons of a restaurant at the site and the general public.
“Now she has opened a Pandora’s box of all sorts of problems,” Menna accused Burnham. “Thank you so very much.”
Considine said in his email, DEP representatives are scheduled to meet with Red Bank officials Friday to discuss the parking issue.
The borough conducted a special public hearing on Dec. 30 in conjunction with its request for a ROSI amendment because of the parking issue. That has led to the borough “spending tons of money that we should not be spending” on an engineering study and report to address the DEP requirements, Menna said.
Burnham noted the hearing was well attended given it was in the middle of the holiday season, with the majority of comments indicating a wish to save and preserve the locations.
The cost of the report and study was not immediately available, according to the borough’s finance office.
Burnham continues to rankle over the assertions that the listing of these properties was a mistake.
“The only mistake is that Red Bank got caught violating a DEP regulation,” she said. She countered Menna’s claim about the cost by charging, “They’re going to use taxpayer money to their advantage.”
Burnham contends the remedy is what Menna said is already being sought: To ask the DEP’s permission to bifurcate the sites, separating parking areas from the other protected property.
She also disputes Menna’s assertion that the issue is only about removing the parking area. She points to a Feb. 26 letter from the DEP to borough engineer Christine Ballard, noting Ballard’s assertion that the entire Maple Cove property was listed by mistake.
Ballard did not return phone calls to her office this week
“It’s much ado about nothing. It’s a lot of diatribe, misrepresented to the public and lot of money spent that should not have been spent,” Menna said.
He also offered a little advice to Burnham: “A new public official should be more careful with what she says.”
The DEP is expected to issue its decision whether to amend the ROSI by mid-February, Considine said.