State DEP cites violations, stops controversial Bergenfield rec center

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Bergenfield officials have violated state regulations by not obtaining the necessary permits to clear dozens of trees and do other work connected with the construction of a recreation center at Whittaker Park — and must cease immediately, the state DEP says in a violation notice that stops the controversial project in its tracks.

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

State officials have given Bergenfield officials until May 17 to apply for the necessary permit or submit a plan “to restore the site to its pre-disturbance condition,” according to the violation notice, a copy of which was obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT.

They also have until this Saturday to provide a written explanation “of the corrective measures you have taken or will take to achieve compliance,” wrote Armand Perez, the regional supervisor for the DEP’s Bureau of Coastal Land Use Compliance and Enforcement.Residents have been fighting the work being done to erect the 13,000-square-foot, pre-fabricated rec center in a residential buffer zone of Mezler’s Creek at 10-acre Whittaker Park.

The decision “may not be appealed or contested,” he added.

Fines “may be assessed on a daily basis” if Bergenfield doesn’t comply, Perez also says in the notice, sent to Mayor Timothy J. Driscoll and to the borough Council, clerk and attorney.

Residents have been fighting the work being done to erect the 13,000-square-foot, pre-fabricated Community Center Gym at the end of Willow Street, 10 feet from the adjacent property line, in what had been a 50-foot residential green buffer.

To place the building there, an existing garage and child’s playground that were just outside that buffer also needed to be removed.

Before a March 20 public hearing on the project, the existing garage and playground were ordered dismantled and trees cut.

Without site plans or a flood hazard permit, the borough proceeded with construction ner Metzler’s Creek of a new two-story garage — the focus of the state DEP’s attention.

Trees also were cut down to make way for a macadam parking area without a site or stormwater management plan.

As residents pointed out, the work has proceeded even though the borough Council hasn’t yet voted on a zoning change for the Green Acres parkland from outdoor recreation to indoor recreation.

Under state law, the vote cannot take place before June 18th.

Residents have attended council meetings the past several months to make their objections known – not only to the project itself but to the way it’s been handled, accusing borough officials of making back-room deals and ignoring genuine concerns over flooding, increased traffic and the overall environmental impact.

They have channeled their anger at Councilman Robert Gillman, a Democrat running for re-election, who is the current president of the Police Athletic League, which leases Whittaker Park.

Gillman ordered the existing garage and playground dismantled and trees cut before the March 20 public hearing, they note.

Thirty trees were cleared in March with many more marked to be cut, and other work subsequently was done without permits, public hearings or plans.

An attempt to address residents’ concerns over flooding and pedestrian safety — the formation of a committee to explore alternative sites — was immediately withdrawn from a work session agenda, opponents said.

Studies have shown that a detention basin is needed in that area to cope with current flooding. Clearing so many trees and changing the area’s parkland use will only make matters worse for those nearby, including the historic Baptist Cemetery, residents say. Then there’s the cost of operating the center, which they say can’t possibly be supported by PAL dues and fees alone.

So far, residents say, three different locations around the park and two different buffers were disturbed or destroyed to relocate a garage on the site and to create more parking for the new recreation center before the public hearing even took place.

The residents now are hoping the DEP’s involvement will convince borough officials to move the Community Center Gym to another site.

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