BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Somerset County Park Commission has canceled its emergency meeting planned for Wednesday regarding restricting access to certain areas of Washington Valley Park, in Bridgewater, in favor of increased enforcement.
In a release Tuesday morning, the park commission announced it is working closely with the Bridgewater Township Police Department and the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office to limit vandalism, illegal alcohol consumption and trespassing at the park, a 720-acre site with a 21-acre reservoir, scenic waterfalls, more than 7 miles of trails and a hawk watch.
“This summer has been different than in years past,” Somerset County Park Commission Director-Secretary Geoffrey Soriano said in the release. “We have seen illegal swimming and trespassing, illegal drinking and dumping of garbage and empty beer and liquor bottles. Last month, a 37-year-old man tragically lost his life when he drowned after jumping into the reservoir. One of the park commission’s responsibilities is to keep our parks clean and safe for the law abiding visitors, and we take that responsibility seriously.”
Throughout the last few months, the release said, park rangers have seen a number of violations, well above the number they normally see, particularly in or in the immediate vicinity of the waterways and bodies of water of the reservoir, and the east and west branches of Middle Brook.
“Illegal activities are interfering with the legal enjoyment of the park,” Soriano said in the release.
Sheriff Darrin Russo said there has been a lot more littering and trespassing at the park lately, including damage to property and people cutting the fences to get to restricted areas. He said he believes it is all from a lot of people coming in from out of the area.
“When it says no trespassing, there is a reason,” he said. “It’s for people’s safety. People can’t be cutting fences and going to places that are dangerous for them. It’s also dangerous for us to come and help you.”
Bridgewater Mayor Matthew Moench said in a statement that he and the police department met with representatives of the park commission to discuss the concerns about the park.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the township has noticed a drastic increase in the park’s use, which has led to parking issues on the surrounding township roads and an uptick in criminal behavior within the park itself,” he said in the statement. “The township and the police department have been working diligently to allay the parking concerns by way of several measures, but most notably, increase enforcement.”
On a nearly daily basis, the release said, park rangers have had to call Bridgewater Township Police officers for enforcement efforts to address the violations. With the adverse impacts to neighboring property owners that included noise pollution, potential forest fires, trespass incidents and continued harassment, the park commission considered a plan to designate certain areas, within 100 feet of waterways in Washington Valley Park, to be restricted from public access.
But, the release said, sheriff’s officers patrolled the park last weekend, and the park commission has suspended its consideration of the proposal, and the emergency meeting has been canceled. The commission will instead continue to work with law enforcement agencies to increase enforcement in the park.
Russo said he was not in favor of the restrictions at the park, so he put out the idea for his office to work with the Bridgewater Police Department and park rangers to get additional enforcement in the area. He said he put officers in the park over the weekend, and heard positive responses from residents.
Because it worked, Russo said, they will continue to have officers stationed at the park, particularly through the end of the summer, to make sure the area is fully covered.
“There will be visibility, and people will see the officers there and know there is zero tolerance,” he said. “If the word gets out, the problems will subside, I’m confident.”
Russo said that Bridgewater Police have a higher call volume than his office, so, with the courts closed right now due to the pandemic, he has additional officers he can send to the park for the time being.
“We are working with the Bridgewater police and rangers out there because they are more used to the terrain,” he said. “Working together is how we get this accomplished.”
Moench said in his statement that there had been a strong reaction from county residents who do not want park access restricted.
Many residents sent emails and called the park commission with concerns about the plans for restricting access, and many were planning to attend the emergency meeting to voice their concerns.
“After meeting with the representatives, it appears that the planned action will be put on hold as the parks will engage the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office to be deployed in the parks to increase enforcement and act as a deterrent to bad actors,” Moench said in his statement. “I stand with the many concerned residents of Bridgewater and Somerset County who should not have their park access diminished because some people choose not to follow the rules. All other options must be exhausted.”
Russo said he doesn’t believe restricting access to areas of the park is necessary at this time.
“I don’t agree with it,” he said. “You have a handful of bad apples, you shouldn’t throw out the whole basket.”
“We will deal with the problem, and deal with those breaking the rules,” he added. “Hopefully, from what I’ve seen in the past, people will fall in line. The area I swore to protect will be protected.”