Possible Swim Facility Has Berkeley Heights Up in Arms

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The Berkeley Heights Town Council listens to residents' concerns during the meeting Tuesday night. Credits: Nicole La Capria
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BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – Hundreds of Berkeley Heights residents gathered to show support and dissent for the possible construction of a 51,000 square foot swim facility at the town council meeting Tuesday night.

The expansive commercial facility would serve as the new location for the Berkeley Aquatic Club and will be built in Warren Township on the border of Berkeley Heights if the council votes to amend a sewer agreement with Warren.

A sea of red filled the room - the color donned by residents opposing the amendment essential to the construction of the building. Passing the amendment will permit the BAC facility access to Berkeley Heights' water supply. Greatest concerns voiced by attendees were noise, safety, and the unsightliness of a massive building erected in their residential community.

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Berkeley Heights resident Ira Jersey agreed that a new pool would be great - but not a facility of this capacity.

"There are issues that will affect the quality of life, the value of my home, and the safety of my children," he said.

Many worried parents living on Emerson Road, adjacent to the facility's proposed location, fear the added traffic the center would draw will mean danger for their school-age children. Emerson Road lacks sidewalks, and speeding cars could pose a serious hazard.

Homeowners worry that the facility will be unattractive, ruin the peacefulness of their community and decrease the value of their homes. It will attract swimmers from near and far, be open from 8 a.m to 10 p.m, 350 days and hold 40 swim meets a year. With only 215 planned parking spots, the congestion it could cause is a common concern.

"There's a reason projects like this belong in commercial areas," said resident Mark Faecher.

Richard Skolnick, an attorney representing the opposition, called the new center "the Taj Mahal of all swim facilities," estimating that 500 people could be there at any given time. "If parking is insufficient, there could be significant traffic problems," he said.

Those in favor of the proposal argued that the increased revenue the facility will generate is beneficial. Berkeley Heights could receive up $100,000 in funding for use of their sewer system in the project.

Peter Wolfson, the attorney arguing for the BAC, said that Berkeley Heights' sewer plant runs on half of its capacity, that the 4,920 gallons used by the BAC will have "no effect to that substantial excess" and that the increased risk of speeding and traffic could be monitored by law enforcement.

Berkeley Heights resident Paul Hansen believes the fee associated with the center will bring a continued stream of revenue associated with every gallon used. "Allowing the BAC to tap into excess sewer capacity represents the gift that keeps on giving," he said.

Resident Allen Henderson disputes that the noise and traffic would be a major problem. "Anyone in our neighborhood that walks outside in the morning - all you hear is Route 78," he said.

Many swim fans were excited about the recreation possibilities the new center could bring. "It benefits the kids," said Henderson.

Dr. Patrick Smith, Clinic Director of Smith Chiropractic in Berkeley Heights and vice chairman of the Suburban Chamber of Commerce said, "As a member of the local business community the past 23 years and on behalf of the executive committee and the membership of the Suburban Chamber of Commerce, I am here tonight to ask the Berkeley Heights Town Council for their support of the requested sewer hook up needed by the Berkeley Aquatic Club (BAC) for its proposed new facility. If the BAC were to relocate out of our community significant current and future income to both the business community and the town as a whole will be lost, not to mention the loss of 'good will' that having a world class facility in our community will generate."  Dr. Smith also presented the council with a letter of support for the BAC proposal from the executive committee of the Suburban Chamber of Commerce.

After listening to the varied opinions presented, the council stated they will not vote on the controversial amendment for another several weeks.

In other business, council president Kevin Hall discussed an ordinance he will formally introduce in January under the new council - a snow ordinance authorizing the police department to tow residents' cars left on the street during the plowing process.

Councilwoman Elaine Perna called for clarification of the ordinance and a means of quantifying how much snow would be cause for towing.

Chief of Police Michael P. Mathis said simply that the decision to tow would be made "at our discretion."

The council also made several mentions of the dedication and hard work shown by the Department of Public Works in the removal of the tree branches littering the town after the October snowstorm. They advised residents to keep their bundles of branches safely on their property and out of the street, and to avoid blocking fire hydrants and drains. Mayor Joseph Bruno assured impatient residents that cleanup would be as swift as possible.

"It was an unprecedented snowstorm. We are doing the best we can," he said.

One resident requested the town post their tree branch pick-up progress on their website to keep the townspeople updated.

"Why would we do that?" said Perna. "That's ridiculous."

 

Nicole La Capria is a student at Kean University, who wrote this article for a journalism class.

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