HAMILTON, NJ –  A plan to create a new park on a long derelict site has sparked debate between Hamilton Township Mayor Kelly Yaede and county officials. The Mercer County Park Commission is looking to transition “Dam Site 21” into a passive recreation spot for hiking, biking, sledding, paddle boarding, bird-watching and other leisure activities.

In an interview with TAPinto Hamilton/Robbinsville, Mercer County Parks Commission executive director Aaron Watson said the county’s plan for the land will “leave (it) better than we found it.”

“This park will be another jewel in our great park system and will compliment the active park down the street,” said Watson referring to the main Mercer County Park located in West Windsor.  “This park will be totally different than anything we currently offer. It will be another notch in our belt.”

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The Dam Site 21 property, which was acquired by Mercer County in 1978 through Green Acres funding, has only been used for dam purposes.  But, the 278-acre parcel of land purchased more than 40 years ago can be developed into parkland. 

The park proposal was first made public in March.   Since then a 15-member Community Advisory Committee has hosted two public meetings in addition to between 15 and 20 meetings with advocates and stakeholders to discuss the conceptual plan, Watson said. More than 800 residents also completed an online survey about the project.

Earlier this month Yaede sent a letter to Watson accusing the county of delaying the project until “growing public scrutiny might subside.” Yaede further stated that she has met with residents who voiced concerns that “this unnecessary development of this quiet, wildlife preserve would be detrimental to the existing natural environment.”

Yaede called upon Mercer County “to publicly announce that it will, in fact, abandon the plan” which she called “not needed.” 

Watson claimed that Yaede is looking to politicize the project in advance Hamilton Township's mayoral election set for November 5.

In a response to Yaede obtained by TAPinto Hamilton/Robbinsville, Watson pushed back on the claim of large-scale public opposition.

“The feedback we have received in response to our surveys and public meetings seem to dispute that claim, with most respondents expressing support for trails and other passive recreation improvements at the site.”

Watson further said that the county has engaged in a “transparent public process to develop a long-range plant to improve a County-owned natural area to the benefit of Mercer County residents and our native wildlife species.”

For their part, the Hamilton Township Council passed a resolution in a five to zero bi-partisan vote at their October 15 meeting stressing that the use of the site should be limited to passive recreation. The resolution also called upon the Park Commission to notify any property owners within 2,000 feet of Dam Site 21 to be notified through certified and regular mail of any further public meetings.

The next public meeting on the project will be held on November 12 from 6:30 pm until 8:30 pm at the Mercer County Community College Conference Center.

Watson said that it is imperative that the County be “good stewards of the land" by transforming it after years of inactivity has allowed for invasive species and storm water run-off to negatively impact the property. He noted that the proposed park would be open “dawn to dusk” and would include a park ranger station and lighting in parking lots.

There will be a public comment period for 60 days following the next public hearing after which time a preliminary site plan would still need to be adopted by the Mercer County Park Commission Board.    

Should the proposed plan move forward, Watson estimates that the project could take between one and two years for completion depending upon how the project is phased in over time.   

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