Proposed change of use at Leon Smock 80 Acre Park sparks debate at Eatontown council meeting

A budding tree during an sunny afternoon in Eatontown on 23.

After two hours of debate, members of the Eatontown Borough Council have set Aug. 14 and Nov. 18 as the dates when public hearings will be conducted on a proposed change in use at Leon Smock 80 Acre Park.

“Why? Why? Why on Earth would you do something like this? These are children, for God’s sake!” Eatontown Borough Councilwoman Jennifer Sherrod said to her fellow council members during a meeting on June 26.

Sherrod made her comments as the council members considered a change in use at the park. At present, the entire 83-acre park at Industrial Way East and Wall Street is designated for active recreation uses.

Council members are considering designating part of the park for passive recreation uses. Two scenarios were under consideration:

• Scenario 1 proposes that 15 acres remain designated for active recreation and that 68 acres be changed from active use to passive use.

• Scenario 2 proposes that 25 acres remain designated for active recreation and that 58 acres be changed from active use to passive use.

Leon Smock 80 Acre Park currently includes two baseball fields, a softball field, a utility sports field, a basketball court, nature trails, restrooms and a children’s playground.

According to a council resolution, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and its Green Acres program has a procedure for any change in purpose or use of funded or unfunded parkland which must be followed by any municipality that intends to modify or change the use of any park.

Sherrod explained that she wants all 83 acres to remain designated for active recreation uses.

Reading from a written statement, Sherrod, who said she missed the previous council meeting to attend her son’s baseball game at the park, said, “What I didn’t know was what was going on here. There was a decision by four council members to move forward with a resolution to make the areas currently undeveloped at 80 Acre Park passive versus active, therefore removing any possibility for us to expand active recreation opportunities.”

Sherrod said more than 50 percent of Eatontown residents live in apartments. She said 1,200 individuals are expected to move to town once new housing is developed, and said “we should be cognizant of their needs and not just the needs of those who live near 80 Acres Park” and prefer passive recreation.

“It is poor planning and short-sighted for us not to consider future needs,” Sherrod said, referencing statistics about child obesity, exercise, children with special needs and the amount of time children spend looking at computer, phone and television screens.

“Eatontown should be providing kids with more active recreation, not taking it away. You are trying to fix something that is not broken. The area can remain undeveloped or developed. Changing the use of undeveloped areas from active to passive is nearly impossible to undo … Changing the undeveloped areas will eliminate all future options for active recreation.

“… We are taking something so precious away from our town. We are taking something so precious away from our children who desperately need something more to do. I recognize you like passive recreation, that’s cool, I like passive, too. But don’t take away all of the active (land),” Sherrod said.

Councilwoman Jasmine Story told Sherrod that council members have not decided if they want to change land designated for active recreation to passive recreation.

“Your statement is based on a false premise,” Story told Sherrod.

“Why would (we) take this beautiful ecosystem and destroy it? Once you destroy an ecosystem, you can’t get it back … Preserving (undeveloped land at the park) is a way of honoring our children, town and community,” Councilwoman Tanya Rivera said to Sherrod.

Mayor Anthony Talerico, who said he was perplexed by the discussion, said “what are we even voting on?”

Members of the public who were in attendance laughed at his remark.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to say, ‘Here is what we are proposing, let’s have a hearing on that,” Mayor Talerico said. “… At some point, the public has to know what they are debating … I’m confused that I’m the mayor and I have no idea what to tell people when they ask what we are preserving, other than telling them to come out on (Aug. 14 and Nov. 18).”

Council members allowed residents to ask questions and make comments.

Resident Candace Faust, who is a member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, discussed what she described as the importance of active recreation.

Resident Allison Mitchell explained what she described as the potential environmental impact of active recreation.

After all of the debate and questions, it was time for the council members to select the scenario they favor for 80 Acre Park and to set the dates for public hearings.

Rivera, Story, Councilman Al Baginsky and Councilman Greg Loxton said they favor Scenario 2 – which proposes that 25 acres at the park remain designated for active recreation and that 58 acres be changed from active use to passive use.

Rivera, Story, Baginsky and Loxton voted “yes” to set the Aug. 14 and Nov. 18 public hearing dates and to pursue Scenario 2.

Sherrod and council President Patti Kelly said they did not favor either scenario and voted “no” on the resolution.

The 4-2 vote meant the resolution passed and that public hearings on the proposed change of designated uses at 80 Acre Park will be held on Aug. 14 and Nov. 18 at Borough Hall.

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