NJ gets Maple Grange; Vernon gets ballfields

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:50

    Vernon-One of the more bitter, protracted and controversial chapters in recent township history, one that had often filled the municipal meeting room with passionate partisans and rancorous debate, ended Monday night before an audience of one. Except for the shouting over the legal fees, the battle over Maple Grange is over. All that remains after final negotiations with the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection is for township officials to sign the agreement that will give Vernon 48 acres on which to develop recreational fields, the Lenni-Lenape Indians the 40 acres representing 10,000 years of their and their ancestor's history, and New Jersey a new Green Acres park The agenda item describing the end of a saga, the second resolution before the council Monday night, was as prosaic as the battle that produced it had been controversial: "Resolution #R04-148; Authorizing and Directing the Mayor and Township Clerk to Sign a Contract to Sell Real Property to the State of New Jersey Environmental Protection." "That simple, little three-line authorization represents a long time in our history," said Mayor Ira Weiner after he had read it. The only person other than reporters to hear Weiner was Pat Seger, the township's recreation director, who sat in the back of the meeting room, as she does at nearly every council meeting. Several months ago, the state DEP, under the Green Acres program, had agreed to purchase the 180-acre Maple Grange tract, reserving 48 acres for the township to use to build recreational fields. As part of the arrangement, the state would conserve the 40 acres at the north end of the site that holds tens of thousands of Native American artifacts dating back to the end of the last Ice Age. The sticking point for Councilman Neal Desmond, who had been involved with the park from the beginning, was that, if the state bought the entire tractit could tell Vernon what it could and couldn't build there. Also, as a Green Acres park, any fields Vernon built could be used by anyone in the state. To maintain control of its park, the township asked to remove its 48 acres from the land being sold to the state. In return, state officials demanded that the township put a restriction on its deed guaranteeing that the land would be used exclusively as a park in perpetuity. The price of control is $144,000 n the purchase price for the 48 acres. Vernon will receive $804,000 from the state for the remainder of the tract, which will become part of Wawayanda State Park. As part of the deal, said Weiner, the state will accept a grant application from the town for $500,000 to improve Veterans Memorial Park. "That park was on no one's radar," remarked Deputy Mayor Janet Morrison. "Now, it's part of the deal." The council felt it was worth it. "We wanted to insure total control of the fields we've fought so hard for," said Weiner. Exactly what type and how many fields the township will build remain to be decided. But the agreement allows Vernon to install artificial surfaces to maximize use as well as artificial lights. The state must approve Vernon's plans for its park, but, said Township Attorney Joe Ragno, "If we don't get that approval, there will be no deal." Ragno went on, saying, "The winner in everything that happened over the last four years is the residents of Vernon, because this council had the intestinal fortitude to maintain a position that was not easy to maintain" in the face of public pressure and negative publicity. Councilman Neil Desmond, who was called a racist in public forums for his opposition to historical preservation for the Lenape site, said all he ever wanted was the playing fields he saw as desperately needed by Vernon's 8,000 children. He had held out the longest on the final settlement, reluctant to give the state a deed restriction on the land, not, he said, because there was any intent of ever using it for anything other than recreational fields, but because the DEP had once resisted the township's request that it put the same sort of restriction on the part it wanted to purchase. Desmond also insisted the township retain control over its park, which led to the decision to exempt those 48 acres from the sale to the state. "I was unwilling to hand over our ability to regulate the property," he said. "In the end, Vernon residents will judge for themselves. In the end, Vernon got the best deal." A road construction project in 1990 had turned up evidence that the tract held a significant archeological site, which would become known as the Black Creek site. But the council either did not uncover that information or underestimated its significance. Once it had purchased the land, local avocational archeologist Rick Patterson led a group that included resident Jessica Paladini that asked that the site be preserved. The 40 acres that would eventually gain historic designation n and win a historic preservation award from the State of New Jersey for Patterson, Paladini, the Piper Rudnick law firm that presented the Lenape Tribe, and several others n were also the flattest and most suitable for building ballfields. The council fought efforts the historic designation, questioning its significance and the Lenape's right to sue under New Jersey environmental laws. Bulldozers had actually begun grading when New Jersey Superior Court issued an injunction stopping the township's efforts to develop the land. That was in July, 2001. The council subsequently tried to swap the Maple Grange tract for the 140-acre Van Dokkenberg farm on Maple Grange Road and Route 94. Discovery of endangered bog turtles on that tract dramatically reduced the developable land, and continued pressure from citizens' groups helped stymie those plans. Ultimately, the council returned to Maple Grange and a substantially reduced park plan. Negotiations with the state began last year and finally concluded last week, ending the saga. Said Greg Werkheiser, one of the attorneys who represented the Lenape in the case, said the resolution is a good one. "The important part is that Black Creek will be in the state's hands," he said. "For three years, we have been encouraging the township to do exactly what it's doing now." Said Weiner, "This, I hope, is the end of a long road, and we can move foreward."