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.

Metuchen loses important non-profit for women

Nov. 30, 2015: Theresa was a single mother in Metuchen looking for help. She had been through a divorce several years earlier and wanted to build a support network.

She found the support she needed at a local non-profit called Women Helping Women. The organization offered group counseling sessions and other types of support at low cost.

“It was invaluable. That’s something that, if you can find it, it’s incredibly validating, especially if you feel alone,” Theresa, who asked that her full name not be used, said in a recent interview.

The low cost aspect of the program was vital to allowing Theresa to be able to take advantage of the services, she said. The experience helped her build a support network in town.

“It was a matter of support, to have this within my community, which is big,” Theresa said.

Sadly, those services are gone.

Women Helping Women, an organization formed by a  group of professional Metuchen women in 1975, was set to close by the end of November, according to Jill Lesko, president of the group’s board of directors.

The non-profit, whose mission has been to help women through divorce, losing a spouse, and other life events as well as mental health issues, is selling its building at 224 Main St. Proceeds will be used to pay off debts and any balance will go to continuing services that will be taken over by Rutgers University, Lesko said.

The beginning of the end — like with so many businesses and organizations — was the global financial crisis in 2008, Lesko said. Funding began drying up and Women Helping Women had a hard time finding new sources. The non-profit ran on support from the state and federal government as well as corporations. One sponsor that pulled back was United Way.

“With the recession, a lot of corporations pulled back funding and were only funding much larger national organizations,” Lesko said. “They felt if they were going to give money, they would give more money to fewer organizations, and have more impact.”

Volunteers who were also affected by the financial crisis couldn’t donate as much time to the organization, Lesko said.

As funding decreased, Women Helping Women continually shrank its services, said Sally Wolberg, a counselor for the organization. In the last few years, Women Helping Women lost counselors and got to the point where only Wolberg remained.

At its height, Women Helping Women ran services to help women get back into the workforce, ran peer training groups, held numerous fundraisers, employed a grant writer, seven or eight counselors, a pro-bono attorney to work with women in transition and nurses on staff. The group also had programs to help younger women deal with bullying, peer pressure, low self esteem and addiction.

The organization grew from its original home at the YMCA into the building at 224 Main St., which it eventually acquired with the help of a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Lesko said. The group expanded the building in the early 2000’s, Lesko said. In 1980, a group spun out of Women Helping Women and formed Women Aware, a non-profit based in New Brunswick that focuses on assisting victims of domestic abuse.

As funding got tight, Women Helping Women invited in other non-profits to the building, including the Literacy Volunteers of New Jersey and Build with Purpose.

While the organization has been shuttered, its legacy will continue to be a program it funds at Rutgers University in which doctoral students, under supervision, counsel members of the community at low cost. “They have a full-time counseling clinic,” Lesko said. “The benefit is we’re helping to teach future counselors, and women have to pay a modest fee to be seen.”

Wolberg, meanwhile, is planning to launch a therapy group for women experiencing relationship difficulties in January to be held at the Reformed Church of Metuchen on Lake Avenue, she said. For more information, call 732-822-3912.

Guest Post: Using Halloween candy to brighten a soldier’s day

We’re handing this space to borough resident Angela Sielski, who penned a guest column about her efforts to collect extra Halloween candy as part of Operation Gratitude. Here’s Angela: 

On November 1st, the excitement of Halloween is over, bits of costume are strewn all over the house, and that sugar crash has kicked in from overindulging the night before. The mound of candy remaining is overwhelming and usually winds up in your workplace or your bellies.

In 2014, after hearing many friends complain of so much left over candy, the question arose, “what can we do?” A discussion online referred me to Operation Gratitude, an organization that annually sends 150,000+ care packages filled with snacks, entertainment, hygiene and hand-made items — plus personal letters of appreciation — to new recruits, veterans, first responders, wounded warriors, care givers and to individually named U.S. service members deployed overseas.

With a 6-month-old baby and my husband, we put the word out that we’d collect any leftover candy from the community. Bags started showing up on our porch and a collection box was placed at local business, Marafiki Fair Trade. We were blown away to receive more than 100 lbs to ship over to Operation Gratitude. In the end, 10 large boxes were shipped out with letters of thanks tucked away in each one. Cash donations were collected from the public to cover the shipping costs and a tradition was launched.

In 2015, the word spread and with the help of two Metuchen businesses, What’s the Scoop on Main Street and Marafiki Fair Trade on New Street, we set up public drop-off boxes to collect candy.

This year, I knew we’d need help so I put out the call for volunteers to help sort, pack and ship in my home. The figures from this year’s collection were astounding.

Just as I was feeling overwhelmed, I received an email from a corporal in the U.S. Marines who thanked us for the package he received last year:

“I loved the care package you guys composed. It was amazing and it’s a great thought to know that people back home still think about the men and woman overseas. I appreciate the care package and everything you guys do. I thank you for your support. I hope your families and dogs are doing great. This care package really made my day if not my week. Thanks for all the support back home!”

boxpilesThis was the big push I needed to get it done. With seven local women late on a Friday night and another three helpers on a Sunday afternoon, we processed approximately 315 lbs of candy! I received hand-drawn thank you cards from a local daycare in the borough, Little Genius Academy, and directly from families to include with each package.

In total, 33 large boxes of candy were put together and sent out. Each box contained a letter explaining that it was all possible because a community came together for a great cause.

The donations to cover shipping costs kept coming in, even after we had met our initial goal of $521.40. I decided to do another round of shipments to Operation Gratitude with the surplus of donations we had received. This time, the goal was to share a few comforts of home during the holiday season. I was able to buy various toiletries, 80 pairs of hand warmers, 20 pairs of socks, wetnaps, pens, writing pads, a dozen decks of playing cards, and best of all, 12 individually-packed care packages which included everything from razors and shaving cream to mini packs of toilet paper and lip balms. Each care package also had a letter tucked away explaining a little bit about our family, Metuchen, and the grand effort of many to make it all possible.

pilesofcandyFour more large boxes will leave our borough and make the journey cross-country to California and then overseas to brighten someone’s day. I was able to raise more than $825 to cover it all, a little bit at a time, from many families and individuals in our community.

I am truly humbled by this experience and the generosity of time and money from friends and neighbors here in Metuchen. Thank you everyone for helping me meet and exceed my 2015 goal. I look forward to what 2016 brings!

Special thank you to:

Candy sorters and packers:

Joanne Ouellet and her lovely daughter, Ada

Nancy Abrams Bernheimer and her husband, Joe

Sarah Teti

Caterina Kusmick

Lori Hughes Lindemann

Erin Segaloff

Lea Lanton

kidsboxesArtwork & Thank you note contributors:

Torrie Flach Rathjen

Tyreen Reuter

Kristina Falconiere Rush who collected artwork from Little Genius Academy

Thank you to my 18-month old son for handing me items to pack in the care packages and especially my husband, Matt, who lets me take on these crazy projects in our living room!

Contributor Angela Sielski is a community organizer and resident of Metuchen

Metuchen wins federal support for several parks projects

Nov. 9, 2015: The National Park Service recently awarded Metuchen a non-monetary grant to help coordinate several area improvements, including building a pedestrian bridge over Middlesex Avenue to extend the Middlesex Greenway.

dismalswampThe “technical assistance grant” only brings consulting help from the National Park Service, according to Jennifer Maier, borough administrator. However, federal parks department officials would help Metuchen identify potential funding sources for various improvements.

“Basically, the national parks association would attend meetings with Metuchen and the county to discuss the feasibility and coordination and funding sources for [improvements]'” Maier said.

The improvements would include building a pedestrian bridge to extend the Greenway, designing the Greenway trailhead area to have an open air pavilion, BBQ grills, bathrooms and a community garden and cutting a kayak trail through Dismal Swamp.

Photo courtesy of http://njdismalswamp.org/.

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.

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.

Five Questions w/ Mayoral Candidates Cammarano and Lebar

Oct. 30, 2015 — We here at Triple B like things short and sweet. Make your point and move on. Don’t use a lot of flowery language if you want our attention. We’re Scotch drinkers here.

With that in mind, we sent five questions to the two candidates for mayor of Metuchen, Pete Cammarano and Daniel Lebar, to try and elicit their ideas on some major issues. We asked them to keep their answers short and to the point. Here is what they had to say (Remember to vote on Tuesday):

1.) How will the Pearl St. redevelopment project affect the borough?

Daniel: Without Woodmont, parking deck alone would simply be vertical re-format of Pearl St.’s former blacktop expanse. Woodmont’s residential influx, depending on tenant mix (senior re-locators vs singles & young marrieds currently with, without, expecting or planning children) presents potential opportunities (new retail customer base) and challenges (increased demand for municipal and public school services), re-channeled commuter & intensified traffic flows within central business district.

Pete: The Pearl St. redevelopment is the result of years of planning and public input that only happens in unique communities like Metuchen. Those sessions with the residents and merchants sought public input and helped develop a project that will enhance the downtown and the entire community. I believe the benefits from this project along with the development of Whole Foods Store will bring lasting improvements to the Borough.

2.) What impact will the influx of new residents have on the borough, in terms of businesses and traffic?

Daniel: Partially answered, above – Campbell School already witnessing classroom space shortfall in music curriculum from ‘organic’ generational churn of pre-existing housing. Overflowing trash & recycling bins between pickups is additional indicator, current intensifying municipal service demands irrespective of new residents ‘in pipeline’ from Woodmont, former ‘Bill’s Ineffable Automotive’ site (behind TD Bank on Lake).

Pete: Most traffic in town is transient or pass-through traffic from the surrounding community. Development near mass transit stations generally results in less vehicles than projects further away. Residents that move to these developments are more likely to commute by train and may not need an additional car. We have seen fewer vehicles per household in other projects near the train station including Franklin Square. Increasing the number of residents in the downtown area will benefit the local businesses and help create a more vibrant downtown.

3.) Should Metuchen be a more pedestrian friendly place? Why or why not?

Daniel: ‘Goes without saying’, indispensable for favorable shopping experience. ‘Complete sidewalks’ policy must be pursued in tandem with statewide ‘complete streets’ program – management of myriad competing uses – fixtures (Victorian lamps, benches, trees with surrounding ground treatments, decorative planters), pedestrians, joggers & runners, infant strollers, cane-dependent persons, rolling walker assists, wheelchair bound, youth bicyclists, skate boarders, devise & implement strategies, designs to fit it all in, forestall tripping hazards (likely joint study project, Accessibility, Traffic & Transportation, Development Committees & Borough professional staff). ‘Breeze’s Cafe’ achieved fullest realization of retail vision after relocating to Middlesex Ave; Torino 2, Novita similarly on New St. Main Street’s ‘in and out’ sidewalk widths from storefront to curb ordinarily pose impediment (Hailey’s Harp & Pub notable exception).

Pete: We need to do more to make Metuchen Pedestrian and Bike safe. We have a large number of young families that walk and bike around town and we need to ensure their safety. We also need to explore opportunities to expand foot and pedal power initiatives, including bike lanes and safer crosswalks and safer routes to schools for children.

4.) How should Metuchen handle the decrepit firehouse situation?

Daniel: More questions than answers at this stage. Metuchen would be well-served with licensed professional architectural guidance, perhaps sourced from examining reasonably contemporary firehouse building plans around Middlesex County (Edison, South Plainfield, Perth Amboy, South Amboy), Hamilton Street-Franklin, Somerset County or consider junior level from Looney Ricks Kiss (Boro Planner Jim Constantine’s firm).

Pete: The firehouse is in need of replacement. The two big questions are where do you build a new one and how do you pay for it. The Mayor and Council have started the process by having a Task Force look at potential sites and the condition of the existing facility. The next step is to start working toward a potential solution that meets the needs of the Fire Department and is affordable to residents.

5.) Describe your vision of the future of Metuchen.

Daniel: Confident, thriving, self-contained community, everything you need to ‘make a house a home’ available from retailers within our borders, including broad range recreational and entertainment choices, while maintaining legacy ‘small town charm’ where ‘everyone knows your name’.

Pete: These are exciting times in Metuchen. I don’t recall another time in my life when there was so much change happening at once. We need to manage that change carefully and continue to ensure that the downtown is enhanced by the development. These projects are the stepping stone of the future in our town. We need to leverage the benefits that we receive from these projects so the entire community benefits.

Editor’s note: Lightly edited for grammar.

Task Force: Metuchen needs a new firehouse

This year’s Metuchen Country Fair provided a clear example of the life of a volunteer firefighter.

Metuchen firefighters were out in force at the fair with a ladder truck raised high in the air displaying the American flag. As people toured the ladder truck, a call came in for a fire in the Jefferson Park Condominiums.

Firefighters immediately packed up and rushed to the scene, a residence on Newman Street. No one was hurt, but firefighters saved the family dog, Bella, who was cowering under a coffee table.

“We go from smiles and sunshine taking pictures with kids and handing out hats to breaking down doors, stretching in lines, opening up the roof and pulling people or pets out of the building,” said Metuchen Volunteer Fire Chief Robert Donnan at the borough council meeting Monday. “It’s a big thing to be a volunteer firefighter … we have to be prepared 24/7.”

Donnan came before Council as part of the Fire Station Task Force to explain the need for a new firehouse. Donnan methodically laid out in detail the deplorable state of the firehouse at 500 Middlesex Avenue, including deficiencies like a leaking and rotting roof, crumbling support pillars, plumbing and electrical issues and a door through which some sort of “critter” chewed.

Firefighters who sleep at the station lay on hose beds and pool tables. If they are sleeping near a loud snorer, they might sleep in the driver’s seat of a truck, Donnan said. During Hurricane Sandy, the firehouse lost power.

The leaks, structural weakness, even the lack of ventilation to help dry off equipment after use is putting around $4.6 million worth of equipment at risk, Donnan reported to Council.

Council took in the report of the Task Force and will talk in closed session at the next council meeting on 16 properties that could serve as the site of the new firehouse. Chief Donnan told Council some of those properties already have interest from other buyers.

Council has yet to decide whether to go with the “bandage” method of fixing up the existing firehouse, which was built in 1914, or building a new facility. The borough engineer estimated patching up the existing firehouse to get it into minimally better shape would cost around $1.8 million. That was a rough estimation made without a plan in place, the borough engineer pointed out at the meeting.

It’s not clear how much a new building, which would require the acquisition of property, would cost. It would likely require a bond issuance for funding.

Some minimal requirements for a new facility are a property of at least 1.5 acres, dual bay doors for two ways to get in and out of the facility, enough parking for 40 plus volunteers and a central location in the borough, said borough administrator Jennifer Maier in a separate interview after the meeting.

“The town is growing and changing, the fire station is falling apart, volunteer recruitment and retention gets harder every day, we’re running out of time and land to build on,” Donnan said. “The time to act is now.”

Council re-purposes bond money to buy bus for seniors

Metuchen senior citizens are getting a shiny new bus soon.

Borough council at the Oct. 5 meeting approved re-purposing money from two older bonds to buy a new bus to transport senior citizens. The bus, equipped with a lift, will be a back-up to the main bus, according to Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier. The current back-up bus is in disrepair, Maier said.

“Our back-up bus is ready for the graveyard,” Maier said. “When our main bus goes down, it’s a real problem.”

The borough’s senior center can transport up to 20 senior citizens a day, Maier said. The borough provides the bus service to drive seniors to various activities like doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, even hair appointments, Maier said.

Metuchen’s Senior Center is for residents 60 years and older. Cathy Ostermueller is the director of the senior center.

Council approved taking $49,000 from two bonds: one for about $1.9 million that was floated in 2011, and one for just over $1 million floated in 2012. Council financed $944,760 of the first bond for improvements and other purposes, according to borough council agenda from earlier this month. Council financed $770,070 from the second bond for the same given purpose. It’s not clear for exactly what projects the bonds were originally intended.

Many times Council floats bonds for projects, but has money coming in from other sources. In those cases, Metuchen only needs part of the bond for the given project, Maier said. That leaves money that can be re-purposed for other uses. Council has the authority to  re-direct proceeds through a legislative process that requires the passing of an ordinance (two readings of which occur in public) and a 20-day period before acting on the new spending.

Council is now in the 20-day waiting period before it can go shopping for a bus. The waiting period ends on Oct. 28, Maier said. “We are putting the specifications together now … then we will buy a bus, but we have to get competitive pricing first,” she said.

Metuchen also has to work with its bond counsel, McCarter & English, when re-purposing bond proceeds for other uses than originally intended, Maier said.

Overall, Council approved re-purposing $310,000 in bond proceeds at the meeting. For example, Council also approved re-allocating $30,000 from a $854,064 float from 2013 to buy police radar equipment.


Muldoon: Diversified funding key to successful downtown improvement

Lower vacancy rates, better mix of retail businesses, increased foot traffic, new business, retention of existing businesses and consistent maintenance and cleanliness of downtown district.

These are some of the attributes of municipalities with successful downtown areas, according to Councilman Jay Muldoon, who gave an update on the activities of the Main Street improvement committee at the borough council meeting earlier this month. The committee was formed in March.

The inaugural group of stakeholders consists of landlords, business owners, residents, members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Metuchen Farmer’s Market, the Arts Council, the Historic Preservation Committee, the Development Commission and borough council.

The group has spent time researching other places with thriving downtown areas, including Montclair, Cranford, Maplewood, Highland Park, Red Bank, Somerville and South Orange.

These towns have certain similarities, including a designated business improvement district with buy-in from businesses in the zone; a full-time executive director running the improvement district organization, along with “really active and engaged and appreciated volunteers”, Muldoon said.

Significantly, these places also have diversified funding sources, he said. These can include tax assessments of businesses in the improvement district, contributions from the municipality, including from the parking authority, fundraising, sponsorships and grants.

“You can’t rely on one source of funding to support the organization,” Muldoon said.

Money is used to pay an executive director as well as infrastructure for the improvement district organization. Money also is used for capital improvement projects, marketing and promotions. Muldoon used the example of Highland Park, which structured its improvement district into a more pedestrian friendly area using planters and benches.

One of the first jobs of the Main Street committee will be to choose the boundaries of the improvement district, Muldoon said. The committee also has to propose what kind of budget the organization will have, he said.

The committee has a series of meetings with landlords and business owners this year, “to not just share learnings and insight but to get input and feedback from larger stakeholders,” Muldoon said.

The goal is to hold a borough-wide meeting by the end of the year to present recommendations for the formation of an improvement district and present those recommendations before Council in early 2016, Muldoon said.

“No decisions have been made at all,” he said. “These are things we’re learning.”