Bernards Voters Asked to OK Open Space Spending for Turf Fields

Synthetic turf fields could be installed at Mountain Park, In Basking Ridge, if township voters give their approval. Credits: By Linda Sadlouskos

BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ. - Synthetic turf fields could be installed at Mountain Park off Martinsville Road by next year if township voters give the township approval to spend $1.1 million of open space funds already set aside for active recreation projects.

On Tuesday night, the Bernards Township Committee gave approval to place the question before voters on this November's ballot. 

The proposal will not increase municipal taxes or delay the end of the four-cent open space tax, which is scheduled for Dec. 31, 2017, township officials have said.

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The total cost for installing synthetic turf on two multi-purpose fields already in place at Mountain Park is $1.7 million, according to figures presented at meeting earlier in July.

The $1.1 million would be combined with proceeds from the sale of pieces of township property, according to Mayor John Carpenter. The mayor said a large part of the balance will come from a $370,000 deal approved by the Township Committee on Tuesday to sell a 5.5-acre property, actually located in Bridgewater, to Somerset County. The land, which because of old border mapping paid taxes to Bernards Township, had gone into foreclosure, and will be preserved as part of Somerset County's open space holdings, township officials said.

The money also would be repaid into the fund through user fees from local organizations and, if there is room in the schedule, from neighboring towns, Township Chief Financial Officer Terrie Johnson and Jennifer Gander, the township's director of Parks and Recreation, said at the last meeting. Nonresident users of the field would pay more, Johnson said. She added, "The user fees would not be onerous."

At this meeting, Johnson said that once the open space funds are approved, the money can be used for future recreational improvements on township land if voters approve the concept this Nov. 4.

The addition of turf fields to the township's holdings of athletic fields - which are closed about 15 percent of the time due to weather or wet conditions _ has long been discussed, the two officials said during the presentation. "We think this is a truly effective solution," Johnson said.

Aim to have fields open in 2015

The goal is to install the fields in 2015, with an eye toward having them open for playing by fall 2015, according to Johnson and Gander.

During first presentation, Johnson said that the $34.5-million collected for through the open space tax fund since it began in 1998 was used to buy or permanently preserve about 12,000 acres of open space during that time. Those investments include Mountain Park, Whitenack Woods, the Sons of Liberty Park and preservation of the English Farm in Liberty Corner.

However, she said the remaining amount is not enough for a significant open space purchase. "It's very expensive to buy property right now," Johnson added.

A later modification of the open space fund, governed by state law, allows some of the funds to be collected to be used for "active" recreation projects such as athletic fields, if voters give approval. 

"I think this looks like a great solution," Township Committeewoman Carolyn Gaziano said at the last meeting. "I like that voters would be given a choice."

About a half-dozen residents at the meeting spoke in favor of the proposal earlier this month.

Nathalie Kirkwood said that being able to rely on turf fields will help local sports groups, and their families, better able to plan around athletic events. She said she had spoken with residents in other towns who had installed turf fields, and they "never regretted" the addition to the fields.

She added she believes the turfed athletic fields add value to a town.

Resident Rita Zarabara, who also is athletic director at the William Annin Middle School, said those student athletes will benefit from the addition of the turf fields.

However, resident Brendan O'Connor had asked township officials to present a more detailed financial plan for how the fields would be funded.

Along with the funds from the sale of the Bridgewater property, Carpenter said this week that other details for the remaining funding are said being worked out.


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