UNION, NJ – About 30 Union residents came out to a Change of Use hearing at Union’s Town Hall regarding Union County’s plan to build a playground on Green Lane adjacent to the Kennedy Reservation.
About 15 residents voiced their opposition to the project. Concerns centered around the constant and continued disturbances and reported drug use in and around the Kennedy Reservation. Residents said the playground will only add to the problem.
One lone resident said, “I’m really excited about the park. It would be a great place to have some family time. There are problems but there are ways to resolve them.”
Assistant Union County Council Kevin Campbell presided over the hearing, which he said was required by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Campbell explained that a hearing is required whenever a change of use for Green Acres property is requested. He said Green Acres property can only be used as open space or for recreational purposes.
As outlined by project manager Doug Hopper, the proposal includes a playground area that will incorporate about one of the five county-owned acres, in the upper corner portion of the property adjacent to Green Lane.
Hopper said plans call for improvement to an existing parking lot, a small outdoor fitness center, a rubber surfaced playground with areas for both younger and older children, a shade structure, restrooms, seating and landscaping.
“There is a lot of drug use in the park and the playground may not be used as intended,” said one resident.
Union resident Colleen Zaccaria said, “We’ve put our time into this. We’ve attended township and Freeholder meetings. We’re not getting answers.” Zaccaria said Kean University students are “abusing our homes, neighborhood, cars and woods.” She provided Campbell with photos taken inside the Reservation of drug "dens," bags of garbage including drug paraphernalia, and "hate symbols" drawn on pathways.
The original proposal for the Kennedy Reservation property included a joint effort between the County and township, with a playground located within the County’s 5 acres and the development of the 40-acre township-owned portion into walking and biking paths and a dog park. The plans for the township property were scraped after being met with opposition from residents with concerns over traffic, trash and incidents involving Kean students and others using the reservation for drug use.
“This is our home. It seems like it’s slipping through our fingertips,” said Zaccaria. Zaccaria and many of the other residents expressed concerns about the proposed restrooms and covered areas for the potential to “draw undesirables.”
Residents also voiced their frustration over the lack of answers available at the hearing.
Campbell said many of the questions posed by the residents could only be answered by the Union County Freeholders and that this hearing was not the venue for such questions. Union County Freeholder Chairman Bruce Bergen and Freeholder Vernell Wright were in attendance for a portion of the hearing but did not address the audience.
Vicki Durbin Drake from Union County’s Office of Open Space, Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund, said this was the first public meeting held by the County in regard to this property. She said the issue will be on the agenda of an upcoming Freeholder meeting. She said residents can also attend any Freeholder meeting and speak about their concerns during the open public comment portion.
“I’m disheartened to realize this meeting is really just to check off a box,” said one resident.
Residents voiced their concern over policing of the playground area and whether the bathroom facility would be locked at night. One resident said the Kean students are not around quite as much now. “We’re moving away from bad stuff, but this park will bring them out of the woodwork."