It’s gratifying when a process works. Back in February of this year, Somerset Hills Board of Education and the Bernardsville Borough Council began discussing a plan to expand the Bernards High School lower field (“New Athletic Fields Eyed in Bernardsville,” The Bernardsville News, Feb 7, 2013). The plan was to cut down hundreds of trees from the wooded area in the eastern portion of the lower sports field, fill it with dirt that was to be given free-of-charge from the local Chase Bank construction project, and simply extend the current field out to where the trees used to be. It was believed that this would be a simple project; it would be done quickly, with minimal cost, and need minimal planning and oversight.
After the Board of Ed announced the plans for the High School lower field expansion, neighbors of that field had a chance to look at these plans. Since the neighbors were most familiar with the field and the surrounding woods, it was not surprising that they recognized a few flaws in the proposal. They knew that there were drainage issues (their backyards routinely experienced runoff and flooding), there was a stream running through the proposed construction area (some had actually fished in that stream as children), and there was a section in the woods that often sprouted skunk cabbage in the springtime (indicating the possible presence of “wetlands”). These neighbors and various folks interested in responsible land use formed a non-profit organization, called it ACRES (Active Citizens for Responsible Sustainability, Inc.), and became actively involved in drawing attention to the problems inherent in the “simple plan.”
I became aware of the proposed expansion and, concerned with what I was hearing, asked to become a trustee of the newly formed organization. In fact, members of ACRES were so concerned with the proposal that we decided to take legal action to make sure that these problems were addressed. With ACRES involvement and due diligence on the part of the Borough Engineer, it was determined that the original plans could have gotten us into a lot of trouble.
The original plan omitted the stream and the wetlands (which, if it had been executed, could have resulted in fines imposed on our community by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection), and miscalculated the stormwater run-off (which would have undermined many of the residential properties that adjoined the field and, in all probability, resulted in future lawsuits). To top it all off, the proposed fill from the Chase Bank was actually contaminated!
Choosing to pursue this issue through the legal system was a very difficult decision, but one that has resulted in some very positive results. The actual process of forming the watch-dog organization (ACRES) and pursuing change through its legal options appears to have significantly changed the proposed plans. There is now a drainage system on the plans that is designed to funnel some of the stormwater run-off away from the neighboring residences. The stream that meanders through these woods and contributes to Penn’s Brook (and ultimately to the Great Swamp) is recognized by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, and the plan includes a buffer zone to protect it. The wetlands have been identified and folks are talking about how to plan around them. I understand this “lower field expansion” is now a capital project, not just a “simple project,” and requires Planning Board review. We are still going to lose hundreds of trees, but not quite as many as was originally planned.
We are so fortunate to live in a country that has legal and regulatory processes in place that allow for and even encourage community involvement. It’s gratifying when the process works and we actually find a way to ensure a better environment for our children.
Lynn Robinson, Lt Col (ret), USAF
B.H.S. Class of ‘75
Former resident of Old Colony Rd, Bernardsville
Current resident of Green Cove Springs, FL