February 10, 2012
Local historian, enviromentalist concerned about future of grant funding through Open Space fund
By Brian Anderson
A local historian and an environmentalist are concerned about grant funding in the future for Bergen communities after a decision made by the Bergen County Freeholders casts question marks on the way Bergen County Open Space grants are approved.
Residents and historians came before the trust's advisory committee on Jan. 30 to speak out against redirection of funds through the Open Space Trust Fund, which aims to preserve historical properties, open space and recreation in Bergen County. The themes shared by residents were common: any change to the recommendations by the committee should be done in the open and any lack of transparency reeks of partisan influence. They also questioned the officials on the board: should open space funds be used to help tear down a historic home and for a parking lot to be built?
The issue came to light in December, when the release of the 2010 Historic Grants, including one to the Meadowlands Museum in Rutherford, were being held up. The museum officials attended freeholders meetings and began a letter-writing campaign asking that the grants release be placed on the agenda for a vote. The freeholders finally complied and passed six historic grants only.
"The citizens of Bergen County expect these funds to be granted through an open procedure of vetting applications, discussing in open hearings the recommendations and then voting in an open manner on the funding of the grants," said Antoinette Moretti of the Oradell Historic Committee. "This process has been seriously undermined."
The conflict boils down to three properties. In July of last year, the body in charge of vetting and reviewing grant applications, the trust fund's advisory committee, recommended grant funding for 13 total applications. Six historic grants were approved in December, but the remaining applications still have not be voted on by the Freeholders.
A document dated Dec. 13, 2011, from the Department of Planning and Economic Development, shows the funding requests by the applicant, the recommendations of the advisory committee and the new recommendations by Freeholder John Felice. The total dollar figure—$6,131,790—remained the same, but three funding recommendations were changed by Felice, who is the liaison to the Open Trust Committee.
Two projects—the Waterworks Plant Phase 2 and Hackensack River Pathway—were reduced in funding through Felice's recommendation; the entire $500,000 was eliminated for the Waterworks Plant recommendation and $110,303 was cut from the pathway project.
The total amount cut was $610,303. Felice recommended that amount be added to the Marker Property acquisition application for Saddle River, boosting its total grant funding, if approved, from $755,000 to $1,365,303.
"After the storms in September 2011 that flooded the Waterworks, I could not support additional taxpayer money to be used for this project," Felice said during the meeting. "Period."
Felice added Saddle River's application will improve public safety and access to the adjacent park.
The Hackensack Waterworks, on man-made Van Buskirk Island, is owned by Bergen County and is the site of an old water treatment plant. The state awarded $704,384 in historic preservation grant money last August for stabilization of that building.
Felice confirmed in an interview last week the recommendations made were his, and will be voted on by the Freeholders in March, at the earliest. He again reiterated his belief that the grant funding for Waterworks would be a poor use of open space money, especially after flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
Saddle River requested $1,755,000 for the acquisition of a property to make a park more accessible. It was filed through the land acquisition portion of the Open Space Trust fund. According to officials who spoke at the meeting, Saddle River has already purchased the Marker Property, and wants to pave over the property, on which a house from the 19th century sits, and build a parking lot for the park.
"The acquisition allows us to improve public safety," said Saddle River Councilman Bruce Walenczyk. "It expands the park, and yes, there will be some additional parking spaces that will be made available through this project."
Felice said last week the decision to redirect the funding was based on the best interests of the public—the improved safety and increased access to public parks is a good use of the grant money, he said.
The fact that the Marker property has an old home—but not a house designated as historic—also had an impact, Felice said. He said the advisory committee overvalued the house, and it should have no bearing on the application. If it was designated as historic, he said, it would have a large impact.
"My recommendation was only that—a recommendation," said Felice, adding individual Freeholders can vote differently on that recommendation.
The public meeting was the second hearing on the round of grant applications. In August of last year, the committee presented its original recommendations, including the $500,000 for the Waterworks project, and no one from the public objected to any of the recommendations at that time. Ultimately, the funding levels for three applications were changed from the original recommendations.
The Bergen County Open Space trust fund covers recreation improvements, farmland preservation, historic preservation, municipal park improvement and land acquisition and open space land acquisition. Municipalities or organizations can apply to receive money through one of these categories. For example, the Waterworks application is through historic preservation funding because the site is a historic landmark.
The funding change has the residents and historians concerned about the future of how grant funding is awarded. They spoke out against the altered recommendation, saying it was done behind closed doors and in a non-open way, and seemed to be political in its nature.
Jackie Bunker-Lohrenz, the director of the Meadowlands Museum, spoke at the meeting and said the new funding allotment is something of "serious concern" in the historian community. She said the decision appears to be partisan; something the trust fund was established to be isolated from.
"Politics is not supposed to be a part of the process," Bunker-Lorenz said in a follow-up interview. "Now, it seems like it is."
The Meadowlands Museum received grant money from this fund in December of last year, but it took months for the funding to be approved. The museum received $72,625 in grant funding for roof repairs.
The delays also mean the next wave of grant funding is in question, Bunker-Lorenz said.
During the grant approval process, applications are reviewed on their merit, not on politics. "The general concern in the historical community is the advice of the advisory committee is being ignored at the expense of politics," she said.
Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan sits on the advisory committee and has been on the committee since the Open Space fund was established over a decade ago. He said since that time, the committee's recommendations have not been changed by the Freeholders. He said in the past, individual Freeholders have asked questions or voiced their concerns about different applications throughout the years, but recommendations were not unilaterally changed until the most recent round of grant recommendations.
"In all the years I've been doing this, the work on the committee has never been second-guessed by the Freeholders," he said. "I never expected that. It was out of left field."
During the meeting, Sheehan made a speech about the relationship between the Freeholders and the committee. According to the Open Space program statement, which governs procedures for the trust fund, the advisory committee recommends, and the Freeholders may adopt those recommendations. Sheehan said the problem lies in one word in that statement—may.
"In order for this process to work correctly, that 'may' should be changed to a 'will.'" Sheehan said.
Ultimately, no decision was made last week, and no decision can be made by the Freeholders until March 21 at the earliest because of statutory requirements. The Freeholders are required to wait 45 days after the public meeting before taking action.