By Elaine Van Develde
“It’s been a long, arduous process,” Fair Haven Mayor Ben Lucarelli said, “but sooner than later locals will have a park on the riverfront to call their own.”
The mayor and other local, county and non-profit officials brought the decade-long concept one step closer to fruition on Friday when they gathered to commemorate Fair Haven’s acquisition of the property on the Navesink River at the end of DeNormandie Avenue.
Officials have eyed the 6.9-acre $1.2 million swath of land as future passive recreation facility for years now, since the tenure of former Mayor Michael Halfacre. However, for one red-tape reason or another, it’s taken a persistent fight and many avenues of grant acquisition to keep the land that was intended by its owners to remain in the public trust just that — and at the right price.
In the end, taxpayers are contributing $200,750 for the property, “most of which has already been budgeted for,” the mayor added.
The remainder of the funding was allocated as follows: NJ Blue Acres Grant Program paid for the bulk, or $608,750 of it; the Monmouth County Open Space Grant Program kicked in $250,000; and, most recently, the non-profit Monmouth Conservation Foundation contributed $100,000.
In order to procure the grant money, the borough needed to commit to certain conditions: the home is to be demolished; a passive park with riverfront access must replace the home; there are to be no impervious surfaces; and the park is to be named after the property’s founding family, the Robards with a plaque anchored on the site giving a brief history of the family. The timetable, starting with the demolition, for all of this is slated for the spring of 2015.
This way, it’s guaranteed to be the borough’s “to enjoy for future generations going forward,” Lucarelli said. Once property is acquired as open space, using state, county and non-profit funding, it must stay just conserved as such.
That was the aim of local officials and the property’s original owners from the onset — to keep riverfront access open so that future generations can enjoy growing up Fair Haven style.
Frequently, the mayor has talked about how he grew up in Rumson with “sand between my toes.” The riverfront has been a mainstay for most who have grown up in the area, though the price and taxes of owning property on the riverfront is staggering for those of modest means — as were the Williams and Robards families, whose relatives had made the property their home since the 1850s.
For that reason, Lucarelli said, the descendants of Charles Williams — the free black man of his time who built his home and settled his family at foot-of-DeNormandie spot — felt that if they must sell the property, it would be their wish to preserve it as open space for all to enjoy rather than cloister it as an elite private property.
The most recent owners, the Robards descendants, whose family had lived in the spot since 1855, knew that as well and, for that reason, wanted to keep it open to the public.
“Winifred Robards (who lived there since 1855, when she was 3) was known to invite kids onto the property to play and enjoy it all the time,” Lucarelli said.
Soon enough, they and future generations will.