Preserving open space

Union City and Weehawken to buy reservoir

Weehawken’s Webster School auditorium was packed with nearly 300 people on Nov. 2 as Mayor Richard Turner and engineers from the Trust for Public Land announced that a reservoir near the Weehawken/Union City border will be jointly purchased and preserved rather than sold to developers to build upon. Union City Mayor Brian Stack could not attend due to a heavy campaign schedule, but sent a representative who expressed full support for the purchase.
The meeting was a public event that Turner held in order to officially announce the purchase of the reservoir by both towns.
Officials addressed residents’ questions about cost, safety, and the effect the purchase would have on taxes and property values.
United Water put the 14-acre, 100-year-old, $11.3 million reservoir up for sale in August of 2010 and immediately received several bids from companies who wished to build large commercial housing on the land.

“The consensus is overwhelming for preserving the reservoir.” – Mayor Richard Turner
The following month, Turner and Stack contacted officials to see if the township of Weehawken could acquire the reservoir.
The following year, they approached Green Acres – a program under N.J.’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) dedicated to funding land conservation and recreational resources – and the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and, according to Turner, received a “great amount of support.”
Engineer Simone Mangili told the audience that TPL is a national, non-profit organization that has worked with landowners, funders and townships across the nation since 1972.

How they plan to pay

The overriding concern was how to pay for the reservoir’s preservation. Turner said that Green Acres gave the state a $2 million grant on June 16 toward the total cost, and that the city of Union City and township of Weehawken procured a loan from NJ DEP’s Environmental Infrastructure Trust for the remaining $9.3 million.
Turner reported that the NJ State DEP listed on the deed for the land, which guarantees that the reservoir will be preserved indefinitely.
The loan – three quarters of which is at 0 percent interest, and one quarter of which carries between 1 and 2 percent interest – will be split by both parties. The loan’s projected payoff will take 20 years. However, Stack and Turner plan to apply for annual Green Acres grants so that the loan will hypothetically be paid off within 8 to 10 years instead.
Union City and Weehawken will also split the annual maintenance fees, which Turner estimated will cost around $600,000.
So what effect will this purchase have on taxes?
“I never can say,” Turner said. “I don’t think it will have an effect.” He added that this past year’s waterfront construction added $18 million worth of ratables (taxable property), which brings in around $400,000 annually, and will help absorb the reservoir’s cost.
In answer to the alternative to build on the land rather than preserve it, Turner said, “You can always build more someplace, but you have to look at the effect on quality of life, and the effect on the neighborhood.”
Both towns are very densely populated.
Turner said new buildings would have increased traffic that the neighborhood’s infrastructure could not handle, and would start a competition for the views.
“Nobody builds low,” Turner said. “There would be an ongoing effort to build up.”

What locals can expect

“We think we’ve come up with a wonderful way of balancing more open space and more development that fits with the character of Weehawken,” Turner told the audience. The reservoir, bordered by Washington Street, Gregory Avenue, Highpoint Avenue, and 20th Street, will be made a “severely restricted property.”
Four acres along Palisade Avenue will have an easement for United Water to build a 2.5-acre water tank (which was one of the stipulations of the purchase) that will come to the top of the raised barrier separating the tank and the reservoir. The remaining acres will eventually be made into a sitting area.
The reservoir will be open to the public in the morning, guarded by security, and closed after dusk with no nighttime access or lighting. The existing interior and exterior fences will remain, and a walking/jogging path will be built around the perimeter.
“It’s not going to be a Great Adventure,” Turner said, though they may allow fishing or kayaking in the future.
TPL will conduct safety inspections in the coming months and, with the supervision of the DEP to protect the existing wildlife, the reservoir will be drained and cleaned to make sure it is solid.
The entire process will take a maximum of two years, Turner said, and most construction will take place on the interior of the property. “It’ll be a minor pain in the [posterior], but we’ll all get through it,” he said.

Residents react

Turner opened up a forum for audience questions and comments, and a majority of responses were positive.
Roosevelt School Principal Alfred Orecchio said, “It would have been easy to avoid the headache of preserving the land, but all of the hard work put in will make the city more attractive to people.”
“There are politicians and there are [public] stewards,” resident Edward Flood stated. “In this case the entities are the same.”
Martin Shapiro, Weehawken’s self-proclaimed “devil’s advocate,” expressed two main concerns: first, that the loss of ratables would negatively affect property values. Turner responded, “I think it’s worth it to preserve the neighborhood.”
Shapiro’s second concern was that while the deed for the property will definitely include the NJ DEP and the township of Weehawken, it is still undecided as to whether or not Union City will be included, leaving room for the possibility, he feared, that they could pull out of the agreement.
Turner said that Union City and Weehawken had signed a contract guaranteeing that all costs for the reservoir’s purchase and upkeep will be split equally.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at>

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