SOMERSET, NJ – A project to build what the town is calling a “grandparents park” is drawing criticism from residents who said the plan furthers the erosion of “bucolic” Franklin. Concerns over safety, the park’s potential impact on wildlife and the site’s proximity to other parks and amenities brought at least 30 residents out in opposition to the project at last night’s special council meeting dedicated to the proposal. 

Officials said the estimated $550,000 in funding for the project would come from the town’s Open Space Trust Fund – generated by a special tax that can only be spent on developing and preserving open space, farmland and historic properties. The money raised through this tax cannot be used for general budgeting by the town. 

The park would sit within a 25-acre plot of preserved land on the corner of Willow Avenue and New Brunswick Road that the town has owned since 1985. It would require the council to pass a resolution changing the usage status of the land from passive recreation to active recreation. Should the council move forward, the new designation wouldn’t apply to any future development, which officials said there are no plans for. 

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The town’s land preservation consultant said they designed the park to be “intergenerational” and for all abilities. 

“There is research in planning right now that shows that all abilities and intergenerational parks benefit the entire community because it gives everyone an opportunity for recreation and for leisure in an equitable way,” said the township’s consultant Tara Kenyon. 

She said the playground and adult-oriented fitness equipment are placed near each other so that parents and grandparents can exercise while supervising children. 

As for why the town chose the location, Kenyon said its proximity to high-density neighborhoods and identification in a 2012 study of the town’s recreation needs made the location a leading candidate for a new park. 

With seven parking spaces included in the plan – one of which is a handicap space – the hope is most parkgoers will leave their vehicles at home. 

“It is really meant for people to walk and bike there,” said Kenyon. 

When asked why a park that’s targeted at grandparents and their grandchildren would be built outside of the 55-and-up communities in town, Kenyon said that even though grandparents are dispersed throughout Franklin, the park would serve residents who aren’t in a caregiving role as well. 

“There’s no other park like it in the general area and it gives variety to those looking for it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a grandparent; it could be an adult looking to use the equipment as well.”

Site plans for the park released last night show a one-acre area with playground and fitness equipment and a half-mile walking track woven around the plot. Within the 25-acre space, the playground area and parking lot are situated near the corner of Willow Avenue and New Brunswick Road. The placement of equipment, the parking lot, and the walking path were picked by officials based on what areas wouldn’t require cutting down trees. 

“There isn’t a need for clearing living trees, these trees are already dead and we didn’t want to encroach upon the wooded area and just clear the area that’s already been cleared by nature,” Township Manager Robert Vornlocker said. “The parking and the park itself is a couple hundred feet off New Brunswick Road because that’s where the trees are down.” 

But residents who live in the area say that the intersection of Willow and New Brunswick is too dangerous – the area’s poor lighting, sightlines and problems with speeding would exacerbate the existing pedestrian safety concerns should the park increase foot traffic. 

The council has already received a petition by residents that Robert Kashinsky, who spoke on the signer's behalf last night, said has 1,500 signatures – though not all may be from area residents. 

“There may be an errant signature from an older resident from out of state, but the vast majority are from right here,” he said. Township officials confirmed their received the petition and are going through its signatures and comments as part of the review period for the project. 

He offered a comment from one of the petition’s signers, who said that they moved to Franklin Township for its “rural and bucolic” spaces and that the park would continue to erode such areas more “woods and meadows are destroyed and developed and we become as urbanized as most of the rest of New Jersey.” 

Despite the plan including a crossing on Willow Avenue and the township moving forward with other pedestrian safety measures independent of the park, many still feel navigating the area is too risky for pedestrians. 

“We really need to figure out a way to make that intersection safer whether or not we build the park,” said Councilman Ted Chase. 

The meeting marked the start of a 14-day public comment period that closes on Jan. 26. Anyone still interested in commenting on the project can email the township clerk, manager, or Jessica Patterson with the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program. Once the public comment period closes will decide whether or not to pursue the project. 

The earliest council can take action on the project is at its meeting on Feb. 9.

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