SOMERVILLE, NJ - Somerville and Somerset County officials have shut down the South Bridge Street access to the Raritan River and Somerville Beach after a crowd of 250-300 people last weekend left behind 980 pounds of trash scattered along the riverbank, raising fears that it could happen again during the July 4th holiday weekend.
The riverbank property is owned by the Borough of Somerville, according to Borough Clerk Kevin Sluka.
"We went over the tax maps and there's no doubt," Sluka said yesterday after visiting the riverfront with Mayor Dennis Sullivan.
Access to the Raritan River Greenway, a paved path that follows the riverbank, will remain open and accessible to walkers, joggers and fishermen. The path, adjacent to the riverbank, is owned and maintained by the Somerset County Park Commission having been granted an easement by Somerville. It is frequented by joggers, walkers, fishermen, bird watchers, couples and families pushing strollers and walking dogs and workers on their lunch breaks.
"We're going to get the word out there to please enjoy the walkway, but illegal use of the river and adjoining property will be discouraged and the law will be enforced," Sluka said.
Volunteers led by Felix Ciattarelli showed up Monday morning to clean up the river and the adjacent riverbank and pathways leading to the area, filling several dozen 30-gallon trash bags in two hours with debris left behind by the crowd including beer and liquor bottles, soda cans, bottle caps, dirty diapers and tampons, food wrappers, discarded snack bags and other miscellaneous trash. Ciattarelli made five trips from the river back up to the access site to dump the debris in a 20-yard dumpster.
There are no latrines or sanitary facilities along the riverfront, creating a health hazard and safety issue, according to Sluka.
The crowd descended on the riverfront for a day of swimming, cook-outs, drinking and other activities on Saturday and Sunday - all of which are prohibited according to local and county ordinances; the borough added six more signs to the area yesterday, in addition to six other signs already posted, with warnings against the illegal activities.
The crowd size has been building the past four weekends; Sluka said there have been two fire calls to Somerville Beach and police were also called to assist an injured person during the past two weeks; there have also been reports of drug use.
Somerville Police will enforce a No Trespassing ordinance and will turn away anyone who tries to enter the access area, unless they intend to avail themselves of the walkway along the river which extends upriver in to Hillsborough and Raritan, and downriver to Bridgewater and Manville, according to Somerville Police Chief Dennis Manning.
Police began turning away people Monday, and continued to do so yesterday.
"Unfortunately, that's what it has come down to," Manning.said.
Manning said the police presence will be fluid, and officers will respond accordingly to any situations that may arise.
Somerset County Sheriff Darren Russo said officers in his department will be available to assist if needed.
"We'll be happy tp provide any assistance as needed," Russo said. "We will have extra units out on the road for the holiday weekend and can assist any local PDs that may need our help," he added.
Sluka said the hope is that word begins to spread on social media, and that those who have been coming to the riverfront the past several weekends - many from out-of-state - will get the message and not bother to make the drive to Somerville.
"We are hoping that the limitations placed on the beach will result in elimination of illegal activity;.that's the game plan right now," Sluka said.
Geoff Soriano, secretary/director of the Somerset County Park Commission, organized an online meeting Tuesday that included Sluka, Manning, Russo, former Somerville mayor and Somerset County Freeholder Brian Gallagher and others, including officials from Branchburg, where a similar situation with visitors fouling and littering an access area in Ten Eyck Park alongside the North Branch of the Raritan River.also occurred this past weekend.
Early yesterday afternoon, Branchburg DPW crews were installing "No Parking" signs on Route 28 in the vicinity of the park, and had closed off the parking area with barriers in anticipation of another crowd during the July 4th weekend.
The Somerville DPW will also be posting No Parking signs on nearby residential streets; officials have also spoken with the owners of two private properties adjacent to the access site on South Bridge Street where weekend visitors have been parking, and both have said they will take measures to discourage cars from parking in those lots, according to Sluka.
"They have concerns as well and want to cooperate," Sluka said.
Crowds abusing the Somerville Beach area is not something new; problems began five or six years ago, according to Sluka.
Gallagher said that five years ago, when he was mayor, the Borough Council voted to authorize police to post No Parking signs in the vicinity of the access area, and placed barricades to prevent parking; Gallagher recalls the adjacent property owners had chains across their driveways. Those deterrents seemed to have solved the problem, at least temporarily, Gallagher said.
"It's unfortunate, but it's gotten that bad that we had to do something," Sluka said. "We understand there is going to be some inconvenience for people who like to visit the Greenway in the short term, but the inconvenience is going to be worth the long term gain. We certainly apologize for that, but a reasonable person will understand. They know it's going to get better.
"It's a sensitive issue," Sluka added. "This will be a cooperative, comprehensive effort between the borough, the DPW (Department of Public Works), the county, adjacent property owners, increased signage and police enforcement. We want people to enjoy the trail, but we will not tolerate any illegal activity."