Opinion: Colonial Lake Park saved for generations to come

Scott Jacobs

The pair of bald eagles that swept with great splendor into southern Lawrence Township’s Colonial Lake Park for daily feedings from the lake’s shallow waters had rarely, if ever, been seen there before their sudden appearance in the early, wintry months of 2018.

The great blue heron, stately and eye-catching in its own right with its cloak of blue-gray feathery elegance, had long held sway as the reigning exotic species, surveying its kingdom from atop the broad dam at the 25-acre trout-stocked lake’s southeastern terminus.

The appearance of the pair of majestic eagles – sometimes joined by a third – in the skies and the tree tops surrounding the lake quickly and unceremoniously dislodged the great blue from its regal station as top bird in the eyes of many. Newcomers and regulars alike flocked to the park for a look at our nation’s awe-inspiring national symbol soaring overhead in search of prey.

As it turned out, the great blue heron ceded his spot for a good cause. The eagles arrived as if by divine intervention just as a grassroots effort was gathering steam to oppose a plan that was quietly being floated to build a three-story, 120-plus room extended stay hotel in an area that everyone thought was the park’s interior but instead was some 6 acres of woodland and open space privately owned by the proprietors of the Colonial Lanes, a nearby bowling alley that sits just behind a slice of the lake’s sparsely wooded northwest shoreline.

The great birds quickly became a lure for talented local photographers posting to the pro-conservation group’s Facebook page, Save Colonial Lake, which had ballooned to more than a thousand members. More wildlife photos followed – multi-colored wood ducks and diving osprey sharing space on the page with beaver swimming, a shy raccoon playfully climbing a tree, deer browsing, and kingfishers eyeing the water from a shoreline perch.

The park’s importance as a critical wildlife habitat and recreation area – it also features three tennis courts, a children’s playground, an open field dotting several acres on the western end, and plenty of fishing – just a mile from the capital city border and directly alongside Business Route 1, began to gain traction and popularity, and thus defenders. The groundswell of support grew for the township to buy the property by tapping into its own open space funds – raised by a special levy Lawrence taxpayers twice overwhelmingly approved by referendum in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

The Town Council and Manager Kevin Nerwinski weren’t legally permitted to say whether they’d support such a plan because the Sheft family, which owned the property, had the legal right to develop it under commercial zoning statutes. Any appeal from the developer that might flow from a denial of the plan by the township’s Planning Board would have had to go before then-Mayor Chris Bobbitt and the council; so members had to remain publicly neutral.

The citizen’s group continued to push their cause, gathering 5,000 Change.org signatures while advocating at Town Hall, through their own social media, the local press, and among key individuals and conservation groups. These included former Township Mayor Pam Mount, who also heads the Lawrence Conservation Foundation; leading conservationist Jay Watson of Lawrence, who handled assessment and appraisal of the property while with the Princeton-based D&R Greenway Land Trust; the Lawrence Nature Center headed by Teresita Bastides-Heron, and Paul Larson, the indefatigable chairman of the Town Council’s Trails, Open Space and Stewardship Advisory Committee.

After many months of negotiation with the Shefts, the township announced a plan to purchase the property by cobbling together its own open space funds with generous commitments from Mercer County and State of New Jersey open space funds. The citizens’ group pledged to raise funds toward park improvements as well.

But the final signing to complete the sale somehow remained stubbornly undone, leaving the deal in an apparent legal limbo that stretched for nearly two years.

During that time, the citizens group became a registered nonprofit, Friends of Colonial Lake Park, Inc. The Facebook page grew to more than 1,500 members, and its name was changed to Friends of Colonial Lake, since the park no longer officially needed saving.

The park became more popular than ever for the surrounding area during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as options for recreation and entertainment became few and far between for individuals and families who needed a place to ease high levels of stress and worry.

Finally, the paperwork to seal the deal for $3.65 million paid out over several annual installments was signed without ceremony by the Shefts and the township on July 17. The township issued a press release announcing the sale.

Meanwhile, the bald eagles continue to soar over the lake while the great blue herons and countless other wildlife offer unrivaled thrills to visitors daily. The setting brings an incalculable benefit to the people of Lawrence Township and Mercer County, and indeed the region, as both sanctuary and salve for the soul that the park has always been and now thankfully will continue to be for generations to come.

Jim Hooker is president of the Friends of Colonial Lake Park nonprofit executive board and a member of the Town Council’s Trails, Open Space and Stewardship Advisory Committee.