RARITAN TWP., NJ – Advocates of a controversial youth athletic complex to be built at Clover Hill Park here withdrew their proposal, Mayor Mike Mangin announced at yesterday’s Township Committee meeting.

The plan to develop 63 acres of the county-owned park’s 115 acres met substantial opposition from its neighbors, with hundreds signing a petition against it and many crowding last night’s Committee meeting.

The ad hoc committee that developed the plan, and which was appointed by Township Committee, notified the mayor of the change at 3:05 p.m. yesterday in a letter, the mayor said.

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The group “formally withdraws its request for the Township Committee endorsement of the submitted concept plan,” said the mayor, reading from the letter. “Our ad hoc committee has been listening to the public comments and we will meet in the near future to determine how we can best work with the township and/or county to find a suitable solution to the challenges many local youth sports organizations consistently face.”

No one who advocated for the plan attended last night’s meeting. And the letter raises questions about not only what might happen next, but how the advocates, Township Committee and the community itself responded to the concept.

“This is important to me, this next paragraph,” the mayor said as he read the letter, “because I’m a little perturbed by it.”   

“We offer our thanks to the public for participating and sharing their opinions,” the letter, signed by advocate Ira Rosenheim stated, “while at the same time we remain disappointed that leaders of the opposition to this plan have allowed – and even encouraged – their conversations to degrade into very personal attacks against members of the ad hoc committee and the individual youth sports organizations we lead.

“Any suggestions of ulterior motives and hidden agendas are completely unfounded and extremely insulting,” Rosenheim wrote. “The ad hoc committee respectfully urges our residents to remember that they are also members of the community and the volunteer-led non-profit organizations we serve exist for the benefit of the children of this community.”

The Mayor said that he heard there were also comments against the governing body on Facebook “and that’s pretty damn disappointing for volunteers, and this volunteer.

“And I remind the public that Raritan Township doesn’t give a dime to the recreation and youth sports leagues in this township,” Mangin said. “Other municipalities tax just for that, and these people serve as volunteers and they serve for the benefit of all children in Raritan Township and Flemington.”

But Steve Saus, one of the leaders of the Clover Hill residential community that opposed the plan, challenged Rosenheim’s claim.

“We didn’t even know who they were” who sat on the ad hoc committee, Saus said. “So how could we have attacked them? The names of the folks on that list were never published.”

Saus, a youth coach himself, said that wasn’t the intent of his group and that he would gladly speak to anyone on the committee who feels they were attacked.

Resident John Reger asked the Committee if the letter meant that the ad hoc committee would also abandon pursuing the plan with the county – which owns the park – directly.

“They’re not saying that here,” said Committeeman Lou Reiner. “But if they go the county, sir, that’s on them.”

“What also goes to the county is our resolution,” said Mangin, that officials accept the withdrawal of the concept plan. “The Committee believes there should be additional recreation but it’s not going to happen here, at Clover Hill.”

Saus said part of the problem with the proposal was that although the committee existed for more than a year, the first public discussion of the plan was last month.

“That’s an issue,” Saus said, “especially when you’re talking about a 63-acre complex in the middle of preserved open space. To say that this has been a transparent and inclusive process – we don’t know who’s on the committee ... nobody informed us.” Saus credited TAPinto articles that “made us aware.”

Resident Mike Sullivan told officials, “The community in the Clover Hill area did not feel they were part of this ... that it was done on the side or in silence.” He added that some are unhappy with the existing fields at Clover Hill. “How did that even happen?” he asked. “Where was the discussion and vote on that?”

“I think there were a lot of lessons learned,” said Committeeman Craig O’Brien of the latest proposal. “One of them was communication, openness and transparency. We on the Committee missed an opportunity to walk people through the process and explain what was going on.”

Reiner said that while, “I’m an advocate of upgrading existing facilities in the township” he’s “certainly not going to hide behind the county. The buck stops with us ... the public has spoken loud and clear ... 400 people to 500 people signing a petition says it all.”

Committeeman Gary Hazard is a long-time youth sports advocate and former president of the Greater Flemington Soccer Club, one of groups supporting the concept plan.  

“Don’t think we don’t read online,” Hazard said. “We do. That’s how public opinions are taken ... I don’t read the paper anymore because there’s not a lot of news in the paper.

Hazard said it was just 3 percent of the opposition who “went a little bit overboard. I get it. ‘Not in my backyard.’ We listen.”

Hazard said he read every online comment and email and that volunteers should not be “called out ... I’m a public servant. Call me out all day long, please. But not the volunteers. It’s all about their time, talent and treasure. It’s all about the kids. Nobody takes a dollar.”

“Don’t pick on them,” he said of the volunteers. “Pick on us. We’re the ones on the Committee who screwed up.”

“We’ve learned too in the process,” Hazard said. He was unhappy to learn the committee was abandoning the plan, he said. “I thought we could work something out.”

What’s next?

Hazard called for bringing “civility to the process ... let’s upgrade some of our current facilities.

“We’re going to work with the county on someplace else if these groups decide to come back together again,” he said. “They’re blown up now. They’re done. So nobody wins.”

Hazard said he hopes “they stay together ... you’re probably their neighbors. Tell them to stay together on this process” and he promised, “I’ll continue to work with them.”

Deputy Mayor Karen Gilbert said that the ad hoc committee showed the youth sports organizations could work together, “something that hadn’t happened before.

“They came up with what they felt was a good solution, and unfortunately it was met with significant opposition,” Gilbert said. “I don’t think this changes the need for additional recreational facilities in our community. Just like a great school system adds value to our community, so do our good recreational facilities for our youth sports organizations.”

Resident and youth sports coach Rob Brechka suggested, “Let’s fix Lenape” Park. “A couple of turf fields, let’s look at Lenape and see what we can do.”

“It was one helluva fight,” Reiner said. “Emotions on both sides, touching the hearts of many in a quiet suburban town. We certainly don’t want to end up like Flemington Borough with the essentially divided picking at one another, hurting one another. That’s not who we are.”