Saturday morning marked a significant moment in Barnegat for township officials and sports enthusiasts, with the opening of the newest softball field at a Lower Shore Road complex, which has been undergoing renovations since 2007.
However, some residents, while saying they support recreation, have expressed opposition to the way the township has been funding such projects with expenditures from the voter-approved Open Space Fund.
A softball game followed the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday, witnessed by Barnegat Mayor Al Cirulli, township committeemen, members of the girls' all-star team and Mirage softball team players.
"This was all the way from the 8-year-olds all the way to the 80-year olds, we all pushed to get this done, and finally we got this done," Deputy Mayor Al Bille said.
"Bad economic times, people don't want to do anything, but the whole community got behind us," Cirulli said.
Open Space Fund Concerns
Some residents say they have been expressing concerns for years regarding the cost of the field, and what they see as utilizing too much money from the Open Space Fund for these projects.
"This is a long-standing issue with open space, and we're all very frustrated," said Dave Moore, Barnegat Open Space Committee chairman and a liaison to the town's Environmental Commission. "I guess Lower Shore Road stands out because there's a lot of money that has gone into it, and there is a lot more money to be spent there."
According to state law, towns are allowed to use the money from open space tax funds for historical preservation and agricultural and recreational purposes, in addition to the fund's primary function to preserve open space.
"Utilizing these funds for necessary and long over due improvements at Lowers Shore Road is appropriate and permitted by the ordinance," Township Administrator David Breeden said. "The township has made significant upgrades and enhancements at the site without incurring any additional debt by using an existing funding source."
"Barnegat is in desperate need of recreational space and facilities in order to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding community," Breeden added.
Approximately $350,000 to $400,000 remains in the fund for potential open space acquisition, he said.
But just because towns are allowed to use Open Space Fund for recreation, doesn't mean they should do so exclusively, or heavily, local open space officials say.
"The fund is called 'Open Space' Fund," Moore said.
"We have nothing against recreation," Moore added, speaking on behalf of Open Space Commission. "We have a lot of highly intelligent, educated people in this town who want to help, but we're being ignored."
In 2001, the township asked voters in a referendum to approve setting aside no more than one percent of property tax revenue toward the "Barnegat Township Open Space Recreation and Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund.” The majority of the voters approved it.
"I have no problem with recreation, but (the fund) is wrong for purchasing open space," said Jake Taylor, who is a former member of the Open Space Committee. "I donate to recreation all the time, it's a very important part or our town. But the fund wasn't a slush fund to make people look good."
"They are depleting the fund for recreation, when the people — the voters — rejected it," said Taylor, referring to another referendum where the Barnegat Township government asked voters for their permission to set aside a separate fund for recreation purposes, but the majority of voters had said "no."
Township's Take: Rehabilitating Local Land
The township acknowledged spending more than $500,000 so far on cleaning up and renovating the once condemned property on Lower Shore Road, though open space advocates say, with the recent acceptance of a synthetic turf donation, this cost has gone up. The money indeed derives from the Open Space Tax fund, into which about 1 percent of property taxes are deposited.
Breeden expressed pride that the township has turned what was essentially a "storage and dumping area" into a "premier recreational facility," he said.
Breeden cited a township study which named Lower Shore as a "potential recreational area," though according to the study, the area could not be used for recreation purposes due to infestations of green heads and mosquitoes, he said.
Breeden added that the study noted a lack of 50-130 acres of parklands.
"The township refused to accept the recommendation of the study pertaining to Lower Shore Road and proceeded with the revitalization of the area," Breeden said.
The fields, which are not yet completed, will comprise a club house, two softball fields, upgrade of the existing fields, development of a football field and practice area and further upgrades to the access road.
The installment of an all-purpose practice synthetic field, which has been subject to some controversy, is slated to be completed by the end of July, Cirulli said.
Barnegat resident Steve Cotton, who is a vice president for a synthetic field building company, solicited the donation of an artificial field, which cost the township $28,000 to be transported from Maryland. Cotton, who also is the head of Barnegat Junior Bengals, the youth football league, offered to find volunteers and give his own expertise to the town in installing and maintaining the field, which some in town think of as a gift, while others consider a costly nuisance.
"He does it for a living, he got it for us," Bille said. "He's going to install it for us, he's going to maintain it for us, we got a $600,000 dollar field for probably one-tenth of the price."
The fields will be accessible for for all sports programs in town, township officials said.
"The kids are really going to enjoy it, they are going to feel like professionals out there," Bille said.