By Chris Rotolo |
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS –A recent Monmouth County Board of Recreation Commissioners meeting was overrun with more than 100 motivated members of Neighbors for Waterfront Preservation (NWP), a community group that has dedicated itself to safeguarding the last stretch of undeveloped beachfront on the Sandy Hook Bay.
The coveted plot – referred to as the McConnell Tract after its owner Arthur “Bud” McConnell – is currently the bustling hub of the Sandy Hook Catamaran Club, as well as the headquarters of Blackfoot Mobile Marine Services. But the preservation group says its future is being threatened by an application to construct 21 homes on the property, currently before the borough planning board.
Nearly 30 NWP members pleaded with the recreation commissioners for assistance in their fight for conservation, while the group’s founder, Benson Chiles, presented two architectural renderings of what the site could look like as a public park.
The board pledged a joint statement in support the citizen group, but board member Michael G. Harmon questioned whether borough leaders had the political will to make a difference.
“It’s the mayor and council that have to decide whether or not they are in favor of preservation. And if they are, then they should come out and say that,” said Harmon, an Atlantic Highlands resident. “It’s obviously important to this group of residents that came before us. Now it’s up to the town leaders. These situations often come down to the political will of the town.”
County Freeholder deputy director and board liaison Lillian G. Burry, echoed a similar sentiment, called for borough leadership to stand with their constituency.“I’d like to see your elected officials support your efforts for this project,” Burry said. “That would carry a lot of weight and could conceivably form a partnership between the town and the county. Things like this have been done before. I encourage their involvement because you have an excellent request and it shouldn’t go for naught.”
Borough residents lauded the property as a local point of access to Sandy Hook Bay waters, a boat launch for Catamaran Club members and nonmembers alike, as well as a scenic, walkable expanse with a clear view of nearby Sandy Hook and the stunning New York City skyline.
Children and young adults who crafted signs reading “S.O.S. Save Our Shores” spoke of their experiences interacting with wildlife, playing with friends and joining the active sailing community on site, which has helped them develop a skill as well as friendships.
James Krauss, Atlantic Highlands Environmental Commission chair, likened this situation to that of the former Giuliani Tract, another selection of waterfront property once located on First Avenue near the borough’s storied harbor, which has since been turned into a parking lot for Seastreak ferry commuters.
“Unfortunately we lost that fight, but we don’t want that to happen again to the last piece of undeveloped land on the waterfront. It’s too important,” said Krauss, who pledged the use of environmental commission funds to help the county acquire the seven-acre plot.
Though NWP and the board will stand against the development project, time is of the essence, as Borough Administrator Adam Hubeny confirmed that a planning board hearing on the application – submitted by Matawan real estate development company Denholtz Associates – is scheduled for July 12.
“We’re going to fight this until the bitter end and take it as far as we can,” said Chiles, who works professionally as a strategic consultant for various conservation organizations. “Right now our goal is to create a path for the county to acquire the property. The timeline is tight, but under the direction of (Monmouth County Park System director) Jim Truncer, the freeholders and this board of commissioners, this process can move quickly if they want it to.”
This article first appeared in the June 21 – 28, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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