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Columbia Middle School Packed for League of Women Voters Debate on Berkeley Aquatic Center

Liz Keill

Thursday, April 25, 2013 • 7:02am

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – A major crowd filled the auditorium at the Columbia Middle School on Wednesday, April 24, to listen and question three panelists regarding the proposed move of the Berkeley Aquatics Center (BAC) to a new location just over the border in Warren.
 
The League of Women Voters of Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Summit sponsored the discussion, which included panelists Robert Woodruff, a township councilman; Jim Wood, representing the BAC, and Peter Bavoso, speaking for residents on Emerson Lane, Hillcrest and other nearby streets.
 
At issue were the impact on the township’s sewer system, the effect on residential homes and traffic. Wood said the sewage treatment would be the same as that for Lifetime Fitness, with chlorine removed before it enters the system. The development would require 17 connections and an increase flow for a total of 6,000 gallons per day. Currently, there are three connections with a total flow of 1,080 gallons per day.

Bavoso recalled moving into “the best block in Berkeley Heights” a number of years ago, the sense of community and the winding lane he and his family live on. “We didn’t expect to see a 51,000 square foot monstrosity popping up,” he said of the proposed aquatic center.  Plans call for a parking lot as well, with over 200 parking spaces, according to information from the Stop the BAC Committee. He said most of the supporters of the plan live in other communities and that the township council had voted a sewer agreement with Warren down twice.

“Why change an existing contract for a third party private entity?” Councilman Woodruff asked. Once those changes are made, he said, Berkeley Heights would have no recourse. “It’s not about the swim meet next year. It’s about your pocketbook,” he said of the tax benefit that would go to Warren.
 
But Jim Wood, who was a swim coach at BAC in 1972, said, “We give back to the community.”  He noted how many children and adults the center serves and that drowning is the number one cause of death in children ages 1 to 4.The facility is open to the public, for just $4 a visit, with no membership fees. At this point, he said, the center has run out of space. The new facility would be built on 25 acres of land, 10 of it reserved for fields and woods and the intention is to move the building as far back as possible. He said the area is a permitted use, not just for houses, but for churches, temples, flea markets and other domestic structures. The entrance to Emerson Lane would be closed, he said. If traffic becomes an issue, the center would pay for a police presence.  
 
Bavoso said the traffic study was done on a holiday weekend, when traffic is light, and it was before the nearby Warren development had been built. “They never took into consideration that Emerson Lane would be part of this,” he said.
 
Wood said they had looked at 50 pieces of property, including many in Berkeley Heights, but they all had problems, such as environmental issues or swamp land. He added that the current proposal would actually keep traffic away from streets in Berkeley Heights, since the location is right off Route 78.
 
Although Woodruff represented the opposition, he said, “We would like to keep them In Berkeley Heights.” He added that BAC had been a good neighbor for many years and asked about property near Runnells, which had also been considered. “We’re not trying to push them out of town,” he said. “This was a business decision.  I understand that. Now, we have to do what is best for Berkeley Heights.”
 
In his closing remarks, Bavoso said, “I appreciate Jim and what he’s done for the kids. But think about your neighbors. This is a mega, mega facility. Just stand out there and realize it will be the size of Walmart or Giants Stadium.”
 
Woodruff said, “The people of Berkeley Heights elected us to make decisions in their best interest. The implications down the road are significant in how we deal with other towns. We’re going to live through this again; it’s not anti-BAC, it’s pro Berkeley Heights.”
 
Wood said he was confident that, when people do their research and due diligence, “You will make the right decision, whatever that is.”
 
It was clear that both Wood and his opponents drew strong applause from the audience. The public forum will be broadcast on Comcast 34/FIOS 47, beginning Monday, April 29 at 9 a.m. with a final viewing Sunday, May 5, at 10 p.m. The vote is on Tuesday, May 7.
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