WOODLAND PARK, NJ -  Local nature and environmental groups held a press conference in front of the Rifle Camp Park Nature Center and Observatory on Sept. 22 to oppose a disc golf course being proposed by Passaic County in the park. 

Representatives of Friends of Garret Mountain Reservation, as well as the newly formed Save Rifle Camp Park Coalition, were on hand to protest the plans they say will have a negative impact on the environment.

They oppose a 18-hole disc golf course proposed for Rifle Camp Park are urging Passaic County Freeholders to build the course at Preakness Valley Golf Course instead. Opponents contend that the park should remain a "natural oasis" and that the construction of the course will be hard on the environment, being that it is an active sport that is "not compatible with hiking and birding."

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Ann Schnakenberg, Save Rifle Camp Park Coalition executive director, spoke during the press conference and relayed a statement from Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who called the proposal for the disc golf course "completely inappropriate" and stated the privatization will keep people out of a public park. He further stated that the course was about "selling recreational equipment and not keeping open space" and charged that the land was purchased in a public trust, which needs to be upheld.

Schnakenberg then addressed several myths that she said have been circulated by disc golf promoters and the Passaic County Freeholders and administration. Some of those myths, she said, include that the park is underused, and there is no need for a public hearing on the issue. 

"The county's own data in their Passaic County Parks and Recreational Open Space Master Plan of 2014, clearly states that this park is the second mostly used park in the county," she stated, adding that the county is deliberately not maintaining facilities in order to add amusements in order to appear as though they're needed.

She added that Freeholder Bruce James had previously suggested a disc golf course be placed at a golf course facility, but that the county now wants to place it inside Rifle Camp Park, despite opposition from residents, taxpayers and constituents.

"Green Acres required 90 days public notice for a public hearing, a news announcement and a sign to be posted at the entrance of the park anytime there is a disturbance of one-third of a public area-one acre per hole," she said. "This will undoubtedly create a disturbance because it is greater than one acre per hole, regardless that they say it's under one quarter of an acre that wil be disturbed. It's 18 acres. The proposed disc golf course has never appeared in the Freeholders' minutes."

Schnakenberg also argued that removing trees will cause a disruption in the natural growth of the forest and cause erosion and flooding.

She also added that noise and disturbance is going to threaten and injure breeding birds and other species inhabiting the park. She also argues the county's position that the location was always considered an active use park. 

"in 2001, the Passaic County Parks Open Space Master Plan listed the park as passive use," she noted.  

Another myth she added was that residents want it. She noted that over 2,300 people have signed a petition not to place the course in Rifle Camp Park.

"This is not a small group of people," she noted. "All of these environmental organizations such as the New Jersey Audobon Society, Bergen County Audobon Society, Sierra Club and League of Human Voters, prove that. Everyone we spoke to does not want this."

She said great views of the Manhattan city line are what's making the location desirable.

"This land is placed in a public trust and part of our taxes go to Open Public Space," she said. "This is what we have left in lower Passaic County."

Kurt Schnakenberg, webmaster for the Save Rifle Camp Park Coalition website, SaveRCP.org, said that a reasonable alternative would be to install the disc golf course at the Preakness Valley Gof Course instead.

"We found a new location to put the golf course it's a location that's already built for sports," he stated. "No additional work needs to be done on the landscaping because there's already enough room.

He added that the golf course is owned by the county and has approximately 377 acres with considerable water lands, with available spacing for a disc golf course.

"There is convenient access for local transit and it is fully landscaped, with an already fully staffed pro shop," he added. "The site includes a restaurant and bar, which can make going there desirable.  Restrooms, car rental and other faculties already exist."

Chris Takacs, president of the Friends of Garrent Mountain Reservation, also spoke during the press conference, and said that the organization examined an area of Rifle Camp Park where the course would be constructed.

"We found a great native plan diversity - a dozen species of trees, many dragonflies, butterflies and pollinators on this proposed fairway," he said. "We found 17 possible trees for removal on this golf course along, which would have an impact on its ecosystem. Excess removal of vegetation can be detrimental to species, especially endangered and threatened species. Vegetation being cut down will probably include the valuable habitat."

Takacs added that the video of the location is available at SaveRCP.org, as well as the Friends of Garret Mountain Facebook page.

Freeholder Pat Lepore said that the disc golf course is permissible as a recreational activity through a $20,000 Green Acres grant. He added that the environmental groups have been raising issues that are not accurate, including a misconception that the area was a forest preserve.

"It always contained a toboggan run, an amphitheater, park fitness equipment, basketball courts and playground equipment, so this course is in line with recreational activity within regulations set by the Passaic County Park Open Space Master Plan, which contains numerous public comments," he said.

According to Lepore, the Friends of Passaic County, a non-profit organization created by the county, applied for a grant for the county parks system, in order to construct the disc golf course. Green Acres made two determinations regarding the park, the first of which is that the area to contain the disc golf course is an active permissible activity, which falls on Green Acres property.

"Secondly, a public hearing is not required because the addition of the course is not considered a change in use," he explained. "These groups are passionate about what they believe in but they've distorted several issues."

Lepore also said that the county will not be taking out swaths of trees like the groups are suspecting.

"A few saplings will be removed and there will be no clear cutting conducted," he noted. "A lot of open space areas already contain pathways."

Leopre added that the county has hired forester Rob Farr, who had determined where the best place would be to construct the course, with the least amount of impact to the trees. The county is joining Passaic County Community College to upgrade the recreational facilities, including the Nature Center and Observatory, which will hold classes there for astronomy, environmental and forestry studies.

"If anything, it would create a more healthy environment for trees," he said. "It's a win-win for everybody."

A dog park is also being planned, as well as adding playground equipment, which is also opposed by the environmental groups, he added.

"This is all part of an overall plan to begin over the next year or so. People love parks but they also love recreation and we have a half a million people in Passaic County," Lepore said, adding that Rifle Camp Park is next on the county for park improvements. "Green Acres approved it. You can do things that will have a minimal impact to the environmental, while allowing for people to enjoy themselves."

Freeholders will hold their board meeting tomorrow night, Tuesday, Sept. 26, at the Passaic County Administration Building in Paterson beginning at 5:30 p.m.