TOMS RIVER – Ortley Beach is primarily known for its beachfront homes. But there is a large property owned by the Ocean County Utilities Authority that the residents want as a park.
Anthony Colucci, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association, was the first of several residents who petitioned the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders to urge the OCUA to provide a portion of the property as a park. They also protested outside before the meeting began.
“It’s a vacant five acre tract that’s been unused for decades. Ortley Beach is growing and the need for recreational space is growing,” he said. “Our children are playing in the street. They should be playing in the grass.”
Paul Jeffrey, the vice president of the voters and taxpayers association, said he understood the thinking behind not giving away property to residents. He said he also understood that the Freeholders can’t direct the OCUA board members. But, he suggested that next time they appoint someone to the OCUA board, they choose a candidate who would be open to the idea of giving that land to Ortley.
“It’s not their land. It was paid for by the ratepayers. I’ve gone there every month for a year. Only one time was it being used,” he said. “We do not want this industrial site in the middle of Ortley Beach.”
Resident Michael Wymbs noted that a pumping station occupies a portion of the property, but the field has been rented out to other clients, such as a power company using it as a staging ground for utility poles or a Seaside venue using it for overflow parking during a Mumford and Sons concert.
“Yet, when residents ask for it, they’re denied,” he said.
“I understand your frustration,” Freeholder John Bartlett said. However, the OCUA is doing their job, providing clean water, and they need that property to continue to do their job.
That land has been used as a staging area during Superstorm Sandy, and the utility poles came from a lease agreement with Jersey Central Power and Light for rebuilding in the area, he said.
The OCUA has to protect the investments of all of the ratepayers in Ocean County, and some in Monmouth that are served by that site, he said. It is more important than just a local property issue.
Freeholder John Kelly said that some time ago, the Freeholders did forward a recommendation from Ortley Beach residents to the OCUA to turn that land over to the residents for a park. “We did request of them to please look at it and carefully consider the request,” he said.
The Freeholders cannot order their appointees to vote a certain way, he said.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility for public land,” Freeholder Gerry Little said. “All of you pay for it. It’s paid for by everyone. Yes, it is located in Ortley Beach but it’s owned by everyone. (The OCUA) has to look for the entire area.”
People who move into an area, for instance Ortley Beach, or Surf City, where Little lives, move there knowing that land is scarce.
The Freeholders said they would provide a copy of the speakers’ comments to the OCUA.
Keith Marcoon, executive director of the OCUA, said after the meeting that the board of commissioners had issued a position last summer against providing the property as a park for several reasons.
Underneath that vacant land is buried potential hazards from the former wastewater facility. It would open the authority up to liability if anything happened on that property, he said.
“The property was originally purchased with federal and state grants, therefore recreational use may be a conflict,” he said.
The property is needed to serve any of the community’s future needs, he said. If the OCUA needs to rebuild or replace the existing pump station, it would need that property.