Dismal Swamp Commission works to define protected areas

Dec. 14, 2015: There is a vision shared by many people of Dismal Swamp as a robust recreational area full of campsites, kayak launches, cook outs and other outdoors activities.

A 1,240-acre area for families to drive a couple minutes and get away from the crowds, to do things like hike and watch birds.

Most significantly, water from underground springs and run-off drains into the swamp, helping alleviate flooding in the area.

It’s a jewel of a natural resource in the midst of overdeveloped Middlesex County, but it needs permanent protection. That process is proving to take work and, perhaps more than anything, political will to make a reality.

Borough Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen articulated this dream to me during a meeting of the Dismal Swamp Preservation Commission one rainy night in November. She and Commission Member Walter Stochel were the only members who showed up for the meeting.

“My personal dream is to make it a recreational area in Middlesex County that’s close to home that will provide recreational activities for families,” Rasmussen said. “It’ll keep people being healthy, it’ll be educational … a place for people to relax and not have to spend a lot of gas [getting there].”

Former Governor Jon Corzine, joined by Assemblymen (now Senator) Peter Barnes and Patrick Diegnan, signed the commission into law in 2009. The Commission was originally intended to launch with $95,000, but never received any funding until Edison Wetlands Association donated about $6,000 to the cause.

The Commission’s current focus is on setting the boundaries of the preservation area of the swamp. Ideally, the entire area would be preserved, but that doesn’t seem to be realistic. Some parcels in the swamp are privately owned, some are owned by municipalities and others by the county. The swamp runs through Metuchen, Edison and South Plainfield.

The Commission is tasked with defining the boundaries of the preservation area, and that requires authorization by each municipality. This is where political will comes into play.

One obstacle to full preservation is South Plainfield, which has been committed to a plan for more than 30 years to cut a truck road through what Stochel described as the heart of the swamp. The borough has been trying to find a way to route trucks coming off Route 287 around residential areas to Metuchen Road, South Plainfield’s warehouse district, according to an article from 2013 in nj.com.

The state Department of Environment Protection greenlit a plan in 2013 to run the road through portions of Dismal Swamp, though the borough still needed to line up financing for the project at the time, the article said.

Lining up financing for the truck road will be challenging, Stochel said.

The key to pushing through preservation is finding compromises, Rasmussen said. The commission won’t get everything it wants, but there’s likely a way to come to agreement with other parties involved to get much of the land preserved.

Once each municipality chooses the parcels to be protected, they will be taken over by the Commission. Some of the resolutions could be approved in the next year, especially Metuchen’s, Stochel said.

Metuchen appears to be fully committed to protecting the portion of the swamp in the borough. Recently, Metuchen was awarded a non-monetary “technical assistance”grant to extend the Middlesex Greenway across Middlesex Avenue into Dismal Swamp.

For now, volunteers will continue to cut brush back from the Bound Brook, which runs through the swamp, to make room for kayakers. Boy scouts and other concerned people go in periodically to clean out litter, or cut overgrown trails. It’s a labor of love, but one that is worth it.

Update: Manley holds lead after recount in Metuchen Ed Board race

Nov. 23, 2015: Candidate Justin Manley’s lead went up by one vote after a recount in the race for three open seats on the Metuchen Board of Education.

Manley gained one vote, increasing his lead over JoAnn Sabatino-Falkenstein by seven votes. Manley and a representative of the Middlesex County Board of Elections confirmed the recount results.

It’s not clear when the results will be made official.

The recount was requested by Sabatino-Falkenstein. It was approved by Superior Court Judge Arthur Bergman.

The recount included all machine votes, emergency ballots and irregular ballots, mail-in and provisional ballots, including those that were rejected, according to Bergman’s order authorizing the recount.

The recount started at 9:30 a.m. this morning.

Sabatino-Falkenstein trailed candidate Justin Manley by six votes for the third and final open seat on the education board. Incumbent Aileen McGuire and candidate Merrill Lunt already secured their seats based on their vote totals.

Sabatino-Falkenstein to ask for recount in Board of Education race: updated

Nov. 11, 2015JoAnn Sabatino-Falkenstein will ask for a recount in the race for three open seats on the Metuchen Board of Education, in which she trails her opponent Justin Manley by six votes for the third and final board seat.

“At the urging of many supporters, I will pursue the recount. Although the provisional ballots moved the point spread to six, many people would like to see the vote reconfirmed,” she told me in a quick update Wednesday.

At this point, all votes are in including machine votes, mail-ins and provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are paper ballots a voter must cast if there is a question about his or her eligibility. With the inclusion of the provisional ballots, which were officially counted earlier this week, Manley’s lead went from three votes to six.

It’s not clear when Sabatino-Falkenstein will make her official request, which has to go to a Superior Court judge. She has until Monday to ask for a recount.

Meanwhile, incumbent Aileen McGuire and Merrill Lunt are already guaranteed seats on the board based on their vote totals. The final open seat is what’s up for grabs between Sabatino-Falkenstein and Manley.

The numbers now look like this: McGuire 1,718; Lunt 1,438; Manley 1,276; Sabatino-Falkenstein 1,270.

The Middlesex County Clerk’s office is expected to formally update the voting totals this week, possibly today. (I called a few times Tuesday but staff was still working on certifying the counts).

Manley said he believes his lead will hold up in a recount.

“No one lost, only Metuchen won,” Manley said. “I am thankful for the support of the voters and that all of the candidates ran positive, issue-driven campaigns.”

Manley said he is “looking forward to working with the board and administration to continue their ongoing efforts and to begin to execute on the goals I laid out during my candidacy.

“It’s imperative that [the school district] move with pace to begin to address our space and growth needs to accommodate not only the growth we’ve seen in the past several years but what we know is coming with the changes downtown,” Manley said. “If during my term we can formulate a consensus and plan with community input on our priorities and prepare a referendum to fund those investments, it will be a success.

“Equally important to me is addressing the work environment in our schools for the teachers and updating technology education offerings as well as the technical assets needed to support a modern learning environment,” he said.

Update: This post has been updated to include information about Sabatino-Falkenstein’s decision to ask for a recount, and to include more comments from Justin Manley.

Update on Metuchen Board of Education race

Nov. 5, 2015: You’ll have to wait a bit longer to figure out if Justin Manley or JoAnn Sabatino-Falkenstein won the last of three open seats on the Metuchen Board of Education.

The results of the race were so close, with Manley leading Sabatino-Falkenstein by three votes, that it will come down to a count of provisional ballots. A provisional ballot is a paper ballot a voter must cast if there are questions of his or her eligibility to vote.

Metuchen collected 25 provisional ballots, which were sent in sealed bins to the Middlesex County Board of Elections. Staff rejected a total of five provisional ballots, Jim Vokral, administrator with the board of elections, told me Thursday.

Here’s where the real fun begins: Each of those rejections, and the accepted provisional ballots, are open to challenge. Those who wish to challenge must schedule a time to come into the board of election offices by Friday (Nov. 6).

Once the challenges are lodged Monday, the four Commissioners of the county Board of Elections (two Democrats, two Republicans) hold a public meeting Monday at 4 p.m. to review the rejections and those provisional ballots subject to challenges. The meeting will be held at the Board of Elections office at 11. Kennedy Blvd., East Brunswick.

This means even provisional ballots staff has already accepted could be overturned. For example, a person could present the board of elections with documentation that a voter who cast a provisional ballot that was already accepted doesn’t actually live in Metuchen. “If the Commissioners look at that and agree, one of those could be thrown out,” he said.

“At the end, all of the ballots that come out of this that are good, will be opened and they will be counted and added to the total we already have,” Vokral said. That could happen Monday night or Tuesday, he said. It depends on how many challenges come in, he said.

Once the whole process is finalized, the results will be handed over to the County Clerk who formally announces the results and posts them online, he said.

Metuchen Education Board race a prime example of why every vote counts (at least locally): updated

Nov. 4, 2015: Just another reminder that yes, every vote counts.

The only two local races in all of Middlesex County that have yet to be determined are the Metuchen Board of Education and the Sayreville Borough Council. I don’t know much about Sayreville except they had some sort of football scandal. I once fished a river over there but didn’t catch anything. Also, they have a Wawa.

But the Metuchen Board of Ed, now there’s a topic we can sink our teeth into.

The votes for the three open seats on the Ed Board came out like this, unofficially: incumbent Aileen McGuire with 1,499 votes; Merrill Lunt with 1,246 votes; JoAnn Sabatino-Falkenstein with 1,111 and Justin Manley with 1,088. Including mail-in ballots, Manley has a total of 1,268 while Sabatino-Falkenstein totals 1,265 — with Manley up by three votes.

What needs to happen now is a count at the County level of provisional ballots. These are ballots filled out by people who can’t figure out how to vote properly (or something). See here for a full explanation.

The County Board of Elections will review each provisional ballot and determine if it will count. It’s not clear how long this process will take. Jim Vokral, administrator for the county board of election, explained it to me:

The board gets sealed bins of provisional ballots the night of the elections and works to determine the eligibility of each ballot. Once all the eligible provisional ballots are established, the board will then count them for the whole county. This year, the board will start with four specific races that are very close, including Metuchen’s education board, Sayreville as well as the race for Legislative District 16, where incumbent Republican Assembly members Jack Ciatarelli and Donna Simon are being challenged by Democrats Maureen Vella and Andrew Zwicker.

“Depending on how many provisionals we get, how much research we have to do, we could be done any time from Friday, Monday, Tuesday,” Vokral said.

UPDATE 3:11 p.m. Nov. 4: Vokral told me Metuchen collected 25 provisional ballots but one was immediately rejected. The board of elections is now researching 24 provisional ballots from Metuchen to determine their eligibility. Stay Tuned!

Nothing like a little political drama to spice up the week!

This post has been updated to include information from Jim Vokral

Cammarano wins mayor race in landslide: updated

Nov. 3, 2015: Metuchen’s new mayor will be a former Councilman with a lot of political experience under his belt.

It appeared Democrat Pete Cammarano defeated Republican challenger Daniel Lebar by an unofficial tally of 1,760 to 690 votes as of 9:15 p.m. Tuesday. Results are made official at the County level, including mail-in ballots.

“I wish Mayor-elect Cammarano the best and am confident that all issues I’ve been raising before Borough Council during the campaign and in my literature will be accorded due consideration during Pete’s admnistration,” Lebar said in an email.

Cammarano served on Council from 2008 until the end of 2014, when he was replaced on Council by Reed Liebfried. Cammarano is an old hand in New Jersey politics, having served as former Governor Richard Codey’s chief of staff. He worked as deputy director of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg’s 1994 re-election campaign, according to his professional biography.

In his professional life, Cammarano is a partner at lobbying firm CLB Partners.

Ronald Grayzel and Allison Inserro were re-elected to their borough council seats in uncontested races.

According to the unofficial tally from the borough Clerk’s office, the board of education race drew 4944 machine votes, the mayoral race garnered 2,450 and, perhaps surprisingly, two uncontested seats on borough council drew 3,539 machine votes.

Borough gets Amtrak permission to re-paint Main Street train trestle

Nov. 03, 2015: Metuchen received approval from Amtrak to re-paint the train trestle that runs above Main Street, a victory for the grassroots campaign led by resident Nora Pagel.

Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier announced at the council meeting Monday Amtrak gave its approval for the borough to re-paint the trestle. The approval is only for the Main Street overpass and not for any other location, like the overpass on Lake Avenue.

Councilman Jay Muldoon, who worked with the grassroots group that included Pagel, Tyreen Reuter and Linda Vonderschmidt-La Stella, said there is still a long way to go to get the trestle re-painted.

“There’s a lot to do to make this a reality,” Muldoon said at the council meeting. This includes forming a more official committee to work on the project and figuring out how to fund it, he said.

Pagel made a presentation before Council in January on re-painting the trestle, which she had researched for two years, she said at the time. She researched other towns that had done similar projects and worked with Amtrak to figure out how to get permission for the project. “I feel this project would be amazing for the town, it would uplift the downtown,” she said in January.

The project could include lead removal, she said. It’s not clear if the borough will look for sponsors as part of the re-painting, or even what colors will be used. One resident at Monday’s meeting, Michael Geschlecht, suggested using Metuchen’s colors of blue and white. The white in Metuchen’s colors was a special paint invented by a chemist in Metuchen, he said.

The white, “is actually the brightest color white on the planet earth … the blue that’s used … is bright nautical blue, meant to be seen from far away,” Geschlecht said.