Allentown officials attempt to resolve issues at two Green Acres locations

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ALLENTOWN – State funding Allentown was expecting to receive for the acquisition of open space parcels could be in jeopardy if borough officials cannot correct two issues that deal with the private use of public land.

During the May 22 meeting of the Borough Council, resident Alice Wikoff asked officials to comment on a May 2, 2018, letter from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to Allentown. The letter, which is signed by Jessica Patterson, the DEP’s Monmouth County steward, outlines compliance issues which the DEP maintains must be corrected by the borough.

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Patterson’s letter is a follow-up to the DEP’s November 2017 inspection of Green Acres funded parkland. The inspection “identified several compliance issues on the borough’s funded parkland.”

Specifically, Patterson said private encroachments on the publicly owned Allentown Lake and Heritage Park “have not been resolved to the satisfaction of the Green Acres Program.”

At the lake, which was acquired by Allentown in 1966, a floating dock behind a private residence was identified. Patterson states “the borough responded to Green Acres in December 2017 that the floating dock had been removed.”

“Inspections conducted earlier this year indicate the floating dock has not been removed from the lake entirely, but was instead moved to another section of the lake closer to the municipal boundary. The entirety of Allentown Lake is encumbered with Green Acres restrictions, requiring that it be used for public outdoor recreation and/or conservation purposes in perpetuity,” Patterson wrote.

Regarding Heritage Park, Patterson wrote, “In 1995, the borough acquired several properties with Green Acres assistance and established Heritage Park. … The Green Acres restrictions require that the properties be held (and used) for ‘recreation and conservation purposes’ in perpetuity.

“Our November 2017 compliance inspection identified a private encroachment in the southern portion of Heritage Park. The owners of the Old Mill property constructed a gravel parking area on a portion of Heritage Park sometime after the borough took ownership of Heritage Park in 1995. The encroachment appears to be approximately 0.10 acres in size,” Patterson wrote.

Patterson went on to state that “we (the DEP) strongly encourage the borough, as part of its negotiations with the property owner, to consider requiring the property owner to remove the encroachment, restore the parkland and erect a fence at the property line to prevent future encroachments.

“The borough currently has an open project with Green Acres, with a balance of $500,000, intended for the acquisition of open space parcels throughout the borough in support of the Mercer-Monmouth Regional Greenbelt project. We hope to resolve the encroachment issues at Allentown Lake and Heritage Park in a timely manner so as not to delay the disbursement of any funds under this open project,” Patterson wrote.

In her comments to the council, Wikoff said, “the private encroachments on parkland properties should be discussed openly. They have been detrimental to our parks and residents. The public needs to know what is going on. This issue goes back to the last administration.”

Council President Thomas Fritts said negotiations are ongoing in an attempt to resolve some of the issues raised by the DEP.

“No one is being given property,” Fritts said, adding that officials are hoping additional information regarding these issues may be able to be discussed publicly in the near future.

Officials said the parking lot referred to by the DEP as an encroachment on Heritage Park provides between 16 and 20 parking spaces in a town where parking is at a premium and business owners are trying to attract customers.

Borough Attorney Greg Cannon said fees for attorneys and engineers are adding up as Allentown attempts to satisfy the DEP and he called the outstanding issues “extremely difficult to resolve. Some docks [at the lake] are in Upper Freehold and Allentown can’t walk over and fix them.”

Mayor Greg Westfall said, “Our intention is to resolve these issues.”

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