WO seeks DEP grant to improve Lafayette, Degnan parks

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council unanimously approved a resolution during its Jan. 17 meeting that authorizes the township to apply for a Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres matching grant to be used to fund improvements to Lafayette and Degnan parks.

According to the resolution, the grant will cover $45,525 of the projects’ $182,100 cost. The other $136,575 needed to pay for the improvements will come from the West Orange Open Space Trust Fund.

But township CFO John Gross told the West Orange Chronicle that those amounts are only estimates; exactly how much the DEP will give in grant monies and how much the projects will cost cannot be predicted. West Orange Recreation Director Bill Kehoe indeed offered different numbers at the meeting, telling the council that the projects’ cost will actually amount to approximately $165,000; the grant will cover roughly $42,000; and West Orange will spend around $124,000. Kehoe also stressed that these expenses will be worthwhile.

“There’s really not much to debate here as to the value of” the projects, Kehoe said. “They’re pretty much no-brainers.”

Improvements to Lafayette Park will consist of constructing asphalt courts for volleyball and futsal — soccer played on a hard surface — in place of the existing baseball field currently not in use. Kehoe said the decision to install facilities for those sports came about after it was noticed that the park was being used to play pickup soccer and volleyball. In order to keep the space family-friendly, he said, his department figured it should give residents what they want.

Degnan Park’s improvements will focus on its softball field, which Kehoe said is really too large for the youth who typically play there as it originated as a men’s facility; the field will therefore be reduced in size. Drainage problems will also be addressed, fencing work will be completed and a scoreboard will be installed. Fan seating will be relocated from the right field area to the area near the parking lot, which the recreation director said is necessary for the safety of visitors.

“That is a danger,” Kehoe said of the current seating’s proximity to the roadway that leads to the Katz Community Center. “Young kids are back there watching their big brothers and big sisters play, and they’re running and fussing back there. Even if (people) are driving very carefully on their way back to the Katz Community Center — that’s just not a good mix.”

After Kehoe’s presentation, council members asked several questions pertaining to the field projects. Councilwoman Michelle Casalino asked about the timeline for the work, to which Kehoe answered that the township will have a two-year window to complete the projects if it receives the grant. Gross added that, by the time the money is awarded in the spring or summer and the bid specs go out, work will likely be done in 2018 or late 2017 at the earliest.

Gross further told the Chronicle that the township will be under no obligation to carry out the projects if the township doesn’t receive the DEP grant or if significantly less money is provided than expected. If either happens, he said the council will have to decide how to proceed. At the same time, he said he has never seen an award so low that a project had to be shelved.

In addition, Gross told Councilman Victor Cirilo that the Green Acres program would be open to some cost modifications if bids came in high. And while West Orange will be paying for most of the project, the township evidently can afford to do so. Its Open Space Fund currently holds approximately $750,000, making it one of the few accounts in which the township is not tight on funds, he said.

Councilman Jerry Guarino asked whether the Mountain Top League and Police Athletic League had offered input for the projects, and Kehoe confirmed they did. In fact, he said the projects have received the approval of the West Orange Open Space Committee, the West Orange Hispanic Foundation and the West Orange High School softball team in addition to the MTL and PAL.

The council members expressed their support for the projects as well, with Casalino calling them great initiatives for the community. She even suggested using Lafayette Park’s snack bar as a fundraising opportunity for the WOHF, an idea Kehoe said he would love to discuss with Rodolfo Rodriguez, the foundation’s president.

Councilwoman Susan McCartney was also quick to praise Kehoe and the projects. Before voting in the resolution’s favor, McCartney said the two initiatives were just the latest examples of the recreation director doing what is best for residents.

“I want to commend you because you’re always forward-thinking with these ideas,” McCartney said, pointing out that Kehoe already had plans in mind for Lafayette and Degnan parks before the grant was available. “You’re addressing the needs of the community.”

Aside from discussing the projects, Kehoe also reminded residents they can sign up for any spring sport once they create an online Community Pass account. The recent switch to using the Community Pass registration system has been going well so far, he said, adding that anyone who needs help with it is welcome to call or visit the recreation department to request assistance. Once they have an account, he said, residents can also receive email and text message alerts in the event a game or practice has been canceled.

Photos by Sean Quinn