The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has reviewed North Bergen’s pre-application for a proposed diversion of Green Acres-encumbered parkland in a completeness review dated Oct. 5 and has called it “incomplete.”
The parkland diversion would permit the North Bergen pre-school trailers near the high school football field in Braddock Park and the EMS Building on 43rd Street to remain were they are.
In 2001, the a Green-Acres funded softball field was removed from Braddock Park to accommodate the trailers as a temporary problem for overcrowding in the school district. Additionally, the township has also built an EMS Building in 1999 on the site of a Green-Acres funded playground at 43rd Street Park.
Since then, the trailers have remained in the park despite plans by the district to remove the trailers and requests by the DEP to do so. Now the township is seeking to make the structures permanent.
The completeness review of the township’s pre-application to do that noted the absence of several important documents and evidence, and questioned the level of analysis performed to identify alternate sites for the pre-school. The process is long and complicated, during which the township must prove that no other site is available for the pre-school. Additionally, the township must replace the diverted parkland.
According to township spokesperson J.P. Escobar, North Bergen is working with the DEP throughout the diversion process.
“The Township of North Bergen, North Bergen Board of Education and Hudson County are committed to working with the NJDEP to finalize this process in order to better serve our youngest students by providing them with a full day program and modern facilities to enhance their learning experience, while being fiscally responsible and protecting the taxpayers,” said Escobar.
Public hearing and comment issues
The review started with questions regarding a scoping public hearing on Aug. 11. The DEP asked for proof of a number of documents relating to the diversion as well as evidence that the county placed an advertisement for the scoping hearing.
According to the DEP, complaints were received that North Bergen residents and elected officials were allowed to speak first at the hearing. This resulted in “the exclusion of other Hudson County residents and all non-County residents, even though the park is subject to Green Acres restrictions for the benefit of all New Jersey residents,” the DEP wrote.
The DEP questioned why this decision was made, as well as the reason the hearing was not prolonged to allow everyone who wanted to speak to do so. According to the report, the DEP “expects the County and the Township to allow adequate time for public comment and to not give preference to Township or County residents” at any future public hearings.
The DEP also questioned why some comments from the residents and general public were not addressed. According to the DEP, commenters asked why the application proposes to allow the trailers to remain in the park when there was a prior referendum to put a high school in Braddock Park and that referendum was rejected. Additionally, one of the stated purposes of the approved $65 million bond referendum was to remove the trailers from the park, the DEP said.
In 2018, the township bonded $65 million following approval in a referendum for a school district realignment plan, which would see the trailers moved out of the park. The pre-school students would be integrated into schools following the purchase of the former High Tech High School and the move of all seventh, eight, and ninth graders there.
Addressing some DEP concerns
The DEP questioned why the $65 million bond for the purchase of the Hi‐Tech High School cannot be used to implement the publicly shared plan to re‐locate the entire Pre‐K to a location outside of Braddock Park, including but not limited to a new or existing structure on the High Tech High School grounds.
The DEP also asked the township to explain why the $10 million line item in the 2022 state budget for North Bergen to help acquire the high school cannot be used to re‐locate the entire Pre‐K to a location outside of Braddock Park.
Escobar said the district needed the additional $10 million to purchase the old high school and use the rest of the bonded funds to upgrade to schools per the plan.
“The $10 million from the state will allow the North Bergen Board of Education to offset the purchase of the High Tech High School building on Tonnelle Avenue, enabling the district to utilize the previously bonded funds to make various improvements throughout the district’s schools,” Escobar said. “These improvements include flood mitigation, new ventilation systems and offsetting cost overruns due to price surges in the supply chain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The DEP asked the township to explain why the footprint of the area to be diverted has not been reduced even though the pre‐application states that most pre-school children will be attending their home schools instead of the Braddock Park Pre‐K. Escobar said that is no longer the case.
“Registration at the North Bergen Preschool showed a slight decline last year due to a number of parents deciding to not send their children into school during an ongoing pandemic,” said Escobar. “This year however, enrollment has gone up and we expect to be near pre-pandemic numbers by the beginning of the next school year. Furthermore, we can infer that the district’s goal of offering a full day preschool program will increase enrollment, as it gives working parents the ability to enroll their children without the additional costs of childcare.”
The process continues
Other DEP questions focused on why a county park should be diverted to serve the needs of one municipality, if the diversion will need to be expanded in the future, and the “inadequate” amount of parkland in the township.
Resident Robert Walden, an outspoken opponent of the pre-school trailers, spoke out against the diversion in a recent Letter to the Editor: “Braddock Park is a beautiful location for a preschool, for condos or for city hall, but New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection regulations prohibit using the park for anything not related to recreational use. Park lands are needed to provide respite from the noisy concrete jungle outside them.”
Escobar continued: “The diversion process is a lengthy one and this is another step in the process. We’ll continue to work closely with the DEP as we have been doing to respond to any additional requests for information required in the next 90 days.”
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.