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Funding for Owens Park seems assured

NUTLEY –

It was a close call for more than a year but the Nutley Township administration seems confident that the state will be releasing its allocation of state Green Acres money, after all, for improvements made at Monsignor Owens Park off Park Ave.

Those improvements, which were undertaken in summer 2012 and completed by late September 2012 at a cost of nearly $1.3 million, featured the installation of a synthetic turf multipurpose playing surface accommodating two new softball fields, a football field, perimeter track and two short side soccer fields.

Green Acres was to provide partial reimbursement funding through a combination of a grant and a low interest loan totaling about $750,000.

But on Aug. 9, 2012, Green Acres Project Manager Amy Sumoski wrote to Nutley Parks & Recreation Commissioner Mauro Tucci “regarding a composting facility that was discovered … at Monsignor Owens Park” – which, she said, was an inappropriate use of parkland and needed to be removed.

On Oct. 3, 2012, Sumoski reminded Tucci that, “… the intentions of the Township are to remove the compost facility from parkland.”

Then, on Jan. 11, 2013, Sumoski reported another potential disturbing finding to Tucci, “… that a [T-Mobile] cell phone tower exists … at Monsignor Owens Park,” again an inappropriate use for parkland, and one which must be removed.

“Therefore,” Sumoski wrote, “the Township must indicate what steps it will take to remove any remaining parkland diversions … by February 15, 2013, or the funding for this project will be put into jeopardy of cancellation.”

Asked about the situation recently, Tucci said the township Department of Public Works uses land near the park as a “staging area” for its recycling operation but, “at least prior to 1970,” those locations “were never used as parkland.”

However, Tucci said, “Somewhere along the line, the Parks & Recreation Department erroneously included it as part of our park roster.”

And, Tucci said, on Sept. 4, Green Acres advised the township that it was persuaded that the listing of the DPW facility as part of local parkland “appears to be a bona fide error” and needn’t be disrupted, nor must the cell tower go “because it’s not part of our parkland.”

Tucci said that as a result of the township having been able to amply document its claim, the state “is going to initially release 50%” of its pledged funding. The balance, he said, will come after the township conducts a survey of the Owens Park site and conducts a public hearing on the issue.

Asked for the state’s position, Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environment Protection, which administers Green Acres programs, said that Nutley has sent documents and photos to support its contention that the properties at issue “were never held for recreational purposes.”

Hajna said the information provided by Nutley included site plans from the mid-1970s and 1980 and photos showing the area where debris was collected by the DPW, along with affadavits from former township employees supporting Nutley’s position about the separation of Owens Park from the area devoted to the “collection and dropoff of DPW materials.”

Based on the evidence submitted, the state has concluded “that the township’s position has merit,” Hajna said. So the state will release $375,000 of the committed Green Acres funding now and the rest after Nutley completes the hearing process, he said.

Apparently, the cell tower [just beyond the multipurpose field] won’t be an obstacle to Nutley getting the money.

Although the Owens Park field is removed from the DPW recycling staging area by a parking lot in between, Tucci said the township plans to put up a “solid wooden fence and plantings” to separate the two sites.

– Ron Leir

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