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Saturday, May 25, 2024

With Applause, Blairstown Approves Next Step for Recreation Improvement Grant

A large crowd gathered at the Blairstown township committee meeting on March 27.  Photo by C. O’Chang.

The Blairstown township committee greeted a packed auditorium at its March 27 meeting. Mayor Rob Moorhead guessed (correctly) why most of them had come. 

Some had come to celebrate Lisa Whitesell, Blairstown’s longtime police clerk. On the occasion of her retirement, Whitesell received an official commendation from the committee for her many years of service. She added to the festivity with an announcement that a grandchild was on the way– and gave one last batch of free brownies to members of the force. 

Some had come to learn from Jennifer Correa-Kruegel, Blairstown resident and park naturalist from Warren County’s Department of Land Preservation. She gave a detailed talk on how to build a wildlife habitat that can be certified by the National Wildlife Federation, compressing 85 slides into a streamlined presentation. 

But most had come to hear about the possibility of the Local Recreation Improvement Grant, which was first introduced at the last committee meeting on February 28. Many residents, especially fans of local sports leagues, hope that the grant can be used to repair or replace the septic system at Walnut Valley fields. 

Geraldine Kolb, president of North Warren Midget Football, picked up where she left off last meeting in describing the urgent need for a solution at Walnut Valley. She described portable restrooms that are often vandalized and filled to capacity halfway through games, bathrooms that back up and are quickly rendered inoperable and a sink in the concession stand that won’t drain, requiring the use of bottled water to clean dishes.

The inevitable result: a putrid embarrassment.

At the last meeting, the committee had considered the possibility of implementing portable bathroom trailers or a holding tank. Neither solution would stand up to the heavy usage seen at Walnut Valley, Kolb said. In her opinion, only a new septic system can do the job.  

“These issues aren’t going away,” she said. “The remedy is extremely overdue.”

Mayor Moorhead began by agreeing with the need to address the bathroom situation at Walnut Valley, thanks to the efforts of community members like Kolb at the last meeting.

“We get it now,” he said, speaking for the committee. “The volume of use was probably greater than anything we had imagined. So, we get it.” 

He stated that portable bathroom trailers “went out the window” as a potential solution after the last meeting. That being said, committee members were not in perfect agreement that the answer was a new septic system. 

Committee member Charles Makatura suggested that sports teams might instead use Jones Field, a large “underutilized” facility that might be developed in a few years while functioning as a practice field in the meantime. It’s hard to justify the significant cost of a new septic system for Walnut Valley, he said, a comparatively smaller facility. 

Deputy Mayor Walter Orcutt agreed with Makatura’s reservations, especially regarding cost.

“I have a hard time committing to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a septic system that is just designed for very, very high use for very short periods of time,” he said. “It’s really tough to swallow, even if the state is going to provide some of the grant money for that.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Moorhead and committee member Karen Lance expressed their support for at least exploring the possibility of a new septic system. Moorhead compared Blairstown’s different sports facilities to a car collection. In that analogy, Jones Field would be the powerhouse vehicle getting work done in the garage while Walnut Valley is the everyday go-to vehicle.

“It’s how we get back and forth to work every day,” he explained. “We need to have something stable there while we build out this other facility. So we need to take care of what we have.” 

Lance emphasized the role of public recreation facilities in maintaining property values and boosting a neighborhood’s quality of life, though she also acknowledged the long timeline of any potential improvement projects.  

“We’re in this for the long game,” she said. “It didn’t get broken overnight. It’s been in bad shape for many, many years. It’s not going to get fixed overnight, either.”

Lance also mentioned that the proposed budget includes an increase in open space funds – potentially an unpopular decision with those opposed to tax increases, but also an asset that would make this and similar projects more feasible. 

In response to questions and concerns from several residents, the committee made it clear that applying for the Local Recreation Improvement Grant wouldn’t magically fix the problem at Walnut Valley right away. The town would first have to apply for the grant and have the grant approved. Then the next step would be conducting soil tests to assess the feasibility of a new septic system on the grounds. 

Even if the soil tests indicate that the site is promising, “We may not be able to build it this year,” Moorhead said. “We may just be in the design and planning and bidding phase this year to see who can do it.” But he noted that, all the same, the town engineer recommended applying for the grant, assessing soil conditions and costs and beginning the design process for a new septic system. 

The vast majority of the public comment section had focused on the Walnut Valley septic situation. Rather than closing the public comment section and proceeding through all motions one by one per standard protocol, the committee decided to vote on the grant application right away. 

The committee voted unanimously to apply for the recreation grant, to the applause of the gathered public.

“And all done during public comment,” Lance mused.

The public comment section closed soon thereafter. It was 9 p.m. and there was much work left to do. 

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.