BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – As the voting day nears over a crucial turf battle between Warren and Berkeley Heights, proponents on both sides of the Berkeley Aquatic Center proposal are making "get out the vote" efforts.
The ongoing issue has many Berkeley Heights residents, especially those living in the vicinity of Emerson Lane and Hillcrest Avenue, combatting the plan for a 51,000-square-foot building just over the county line in Warren.
“Warren receives the tax benefit. We get the sewage,” opponents have said. Neighbors have objected to the 251 space parking lot, the size of the facility to be built on 15 acres and the potential for additional traffic. Mayor Joe Bruno, an outspoken critic of the proposal, has also said that there is a danger that the Berkeley Heights sewer system could become contaminated with chlorine because of the BAC using the system should the proposal be approved by voters.
But proponents say about 50% of visitors to the center would be coming in from Route 78, exit 40, which would actually relieve traffic in Berkeley Heights and that the chlorine contamination argument is misleading at best. Those favoring the plan, Back the BAC, collected a petition of enough certified signatures, about 585, to support a referendum vote under the Faulkner Act
Opponents say that the BAC will result in higher taxes but BAC proponents say taxes will not increase.
The BAC says that the Township will receive approximately $100,000 in revenue from fees it will have to pay to use the sewer system. Opponents say that if a residential development is built instead of the BAC facility, at least that much revenue will be produced from the development using the sewer system.
Several months ago the Berkeley Heights Township Council voted down an amendment to the sewer agreement with Warren, with Councilman Ed Delia casting the only yes vote. The council has said that the agreement does not allow for commercial structures to utilize the system, but others disagree.
Union County Judge Karen M. Cassidy denied the township’s request to file a preliminary injunction and ordered a special election, which will be held this coming Tuesday.
Warren Swim Coach Chuck Warner has said, “This is an opportunity that comes along once every 50 years.” Frank Busch, National Team Director of USA Swimming in Colorado, referred to the plan as “a world class development” and that the activities offered cultivate safety, training and competition.
According to Jim Wood, director of the BAC, 50 sites were studied by the principals, but this was the only one that met with zoning requirements. The location, topography and access to Route 78 were other considerations. For every tree taken out to build the facility, two would be planted, he said.
The center would hold 40 weekend meets a year. A 50-meter U.S. Olympic swimming pool was purchased by BAC a few years ago and brought from California to New Jersey. It is still in storage.
“We give back to the community,“ Wood said. He has been a swim coach at BAC since 1972. “I’ve loved what I was able to do.” He noted that two years ago, the center was able to give lessons “to 5,000 kids who had no opportunity.” In addition, the center offers public recreational swimming, adult fitness and hosts special olympics and para-olympics.
Both proponents and those opposed have been vocal on the issue.
“On May 7 you will have your say and after that, you will live with the results,” Berkeley Heights Mayor Joseph G. Bruno said.