BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- Mayor Angie Devanney has asked Union County for a 15-day extension on a Dec. 31 deadline to apply to re-scope unused recreation grant monies. She made the call after getting pushback on a proposal to use the money to build a grass practice field adjacent to the county-owned Snyder Avenue Fields.

Greg Polyniak of Neglia Engineering Associates presented images of the site and showed the council the proposed location of the field and improvements and explained the proposed changes at the Dec. 17 meeting of the council..

The reason behind the proposal was a letter received by the township earlier this fall, said Mayor Angie Devanney. The letter advised the township it had until Dec. 31 to present a proposal that would allow the township to “re-scope” unused matching grant funds from recreation grants previously awarded to the township by Union County. 

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“All the recreation grant funds are in a state of ‘use it or lose it’ by the end of this year,” Devanney said. To use the funds, however, the township must be able to notify the county by Dec. 31, 2019, that it has a “shovel ready” project which qualifies. After getting approval from the county for the project the township will need to certify it has matching funds for the project,  and pass a resolution early next year accepting the re-scoped grant. 

For Berkeley Heights, the grants involved were awarded by the county as early as 2005. The total amount of money involved is about $218,000, but some of that figure includes money that would come from grants issued within the last 24 months, which are considered “usable,” she said. After the meeting, the mayor explained matching grants require the municipality “to provide receipts, including the township’s ‘match,’ to demonstrate you have completed the work.” Because some projects take longer than others, it is often the case that not all the funds in a grant  will be drawn down by a specific date. There are still “reimbursables” from recent and ongoing projects, which reduces the actual amount of money available to be re-scoped.

Devanney said before recommending the town build a grass practice field on township-owned land, she consulted the township engineer, spoke to parents, members of PAL, Peppertown Park Committee members and others about the town’s needs and what could be delivered that would meet the county’s requirements.

She said it seemed to her and others the most feasible plan was to build a grass practice field at Snyder Park  “that provides a number of sports more options,” such as an area for warming up before games, using the field for practices, and providing game space for younger children. “That would at least be a step in the right direction,” she said after the meeting.

The field would be 210 x 155 feet, and could be divided into smaller fields for practice. It would be surrounded by a 12-foot black chain link fence, and netting at the goal ends of the field to prevent balls from leaving the property. There would be a new entrance to Snyder Avenue, a one-way traffic pattern at the site, and 43 parking spots near the new field. 

When she presented the concept to PAL, the group offered to provide a grant to the township for $50,000 for that project.

She said she also met with Director of Recreation Tom Barton and Recreation Commission member Steve Lesnewich who said they supported the idea, but after a meeting of the commission, said the consensus of the group was that the commission’s priority was “Lower Columbia” field, so they would not be able to contribute money to the plan.

Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley, who attended the meeting remotely, suggested a better choice might have been Peppertown Park. “Could we not take $110,000” in re-scoped grant money and have the Peppertown Park Committee “come up with a $220,000 project?”  she asked. 

Devanney said, “I spoke to Bruce (Mustacchi) and I don’t see that being the kind of shovel-ready project the county would approve.” 

There is also an issue to be resolved regarding the NJ Transit right-of-way by the park which still has not been resolved, making it even less likely to be eligible for the funds.

Other properties in town had other issues -- some had wetlands, which requires permits, others were owned by the Board of Education and would require a shared-services agreement, Devanney said. 

Kingsley also said a few years ago, when the suggestion was made to put a community garden in the same area, with a tall, black, chain link fence, people protested because it was not appropriate for “the way into our beautiful town.”

Devanney conceded from the very beginning that the grass field was not the “perfect project,” but it was a beginning. The township “must properly develop a (recreation) Master Plan for today and the future, but time is not on our side."

During a public comment portion of the meeting, Debra Varnerin, a member of the Recreation Commission said she opposed the idea of adding another grass field to the township’s inventory. Those that exist in the township are frequently not playable because of flooding or other water issues, leaving them with ruts. The commission voted unanimously that grass fields were not a good use of funds," she said.