Over the summer the Bergen County Open Space Trust Fund Committee, comprised of residents, government officials, and environmentalists, recommended that $500,000 of the available $6.9 million be set aside for the stabilization of the Waterworks smokestacks.
This fall, the Board of Freeholders chose to reallocate that funding to reimburse the borough of Saddle River for the purchase of the Marker property near Rindlaub Park for a parking lot and street access to East Allendale Road.
"One thing that has taken place is that our advice, we've basically been told 'thanks for all the work' but we're not taking your advice," Hackensack Riverkeeper Capt. Bill Sheehan said. Sheehan is a member of the Advisory Committee. "The problem is that the Freeholders 'may' approve the advisory board's recommendations. That word 'may' should be 'will'."
According to Saddle River Council President Bruce Walenczyk, the Marker property purchase will benefit not only Saddle River but residents of the surrounding towns that also utilize Rindlaub Park for youth recreation.
"It is a viable project because it enhances the adjacent park," Walenczyk said. "The entrance to the park is through an easement for a one-way driveway. By purchasing the property, we are providing an alternate entrance and improving safety conditions."
For two hours, members of the advisory board and Freeholder John Felice listened as Bergen County residents pleaded for the restoration of funding so that public safety could be maintained. Previously, bricks along the smokestack have crumbled down to the street level on New Milford Avenue. The building is located midway between and .
"The area is in a fragile condition because it has not been taken care of in years. It's deteriorating," Oradell resident Stephen Gellis said during the hearing. "I'm concerned this building will be demolished through neglect. It's the same as allowing a wrecking ball to come into the site and remove the buildings."
Closter resident Irene Stella informed the advisory board that members of the public, including children, can access the interior of the buildings by climbing a ladder that is propped up against the fence line.
The Hackensack Waterworks and adjoining Van Buskirk Island are owned by Bergen County following a 1990 sale by United Water. The building's basements and underground cisterns have flooded with water from the Hackensack River due to a lack of power to the buildings causing the sump pumps to be turned off.
"A resident for 17 years, I've watched the property deteriorate due to a lack of activity," Oradell Councilwoman Donna Alonso said. "Recently Oradell had to write a letter to the County to have the fencing repaired after the last flood as a public safety issue. At our last meeting with the County, we were told there are plans to open the facility as a walking park. The only thing standing in the way is shoring up the smokestacks."
"This project benefits everyone," New Milford Councilwoman Hedy Grant said. "New Milford feels just as proud of the Waterworks as all of those from Oradell. I find the process in changing from $500,000 to zero creates a loss of faith and trust in the process."
Complicating the issue is that the $500,000 Open Space Trust Funds is part of a matching grant from the state. The project already received a $750,000 historic preservation grant from the state to stabilize the property and is in line to get another .
"After the storms in September 2011 and seeing how the Waterworks flooded, I could not support additional taxpayer money to be used for this project," committee liaison Freeholder John Felice said.
In response to residents concerns of public safety Norwood Councilman Allen Rapaport, who sits on the advisory committee, stated he would contact County Executive Kathleen Donovan and County Police Chief Brian Higgins to resolve the public's access.
The Board of Freeholders could make a final decision on the 2010 Open Space Trust Fund allocations during their March 21 meeting at the earliest.