Residents bordering the site of a proposed park find themselves torn about the potential development of the county-owned Dam Site 21.
The area, which is just south of Mercer County Park at the Hamilton-Robbinsville-West Windsor border, is currently used as a flood control facility and has acres of wetlands, uplands and woodlands that surround a 55-acre lake.
These features of the site are considered by the Mercer County Park Commission to be “underdeveloped” as the county hopes to reform the area into a passive recreation park with greater public access.
Amenities proposed to neighbors at two public meetings earlier in the year include biking and walking trails, canoeing, and kayaking along with a variety of other options such as a tree canopy walk. The commission is currently working on a draft master plan for the third public meeting, which has been pushed to Nov. 12 to allow the county time to consider all public input. The meeting had been previously scheduled for October.
While Robbinsville Township officials said the response in their town has been “muted,” a vocal group of Hamilton residents has been consistent in its opposition to the park. This group includes Dino Spaddacini, whose home borders the site. Spaddacini has started a petition to stop the site’s development, and has helped organize a group of residents to rally against the development along Hughes Drive in Hamilton Oct. 26, after this edition went to press.
In addition to concerns such as increased traffic and security, Spaddacini says he worries that “a construction yard is being put in a residential area.”
Ultimately, the goal of the site’s development is passive recreation, says park superintendent Anthony Cucchi, who hopes Dam Site 21 can be modeled after Mercer Meadows in Lawrence and Hopewell. Like Mercer Meadows, the plan for Dam Site 21 will include a number of restoration projects to reform the environmental quality of the area as well. The area is “degraded,” with poor water quality and invasive plant species, he said.
“If we implement our master plan we will be greatly improving the site for wildlife such as birds and fish, not just for people who come to the property,” Cucchi said.
Cucchi wants local residents unaware of the site to be able to make use of the area.
“Dam Site 21 is utilized by people in the area that are aware that it is a publicly owned property, but it’s also a county-owned property purchased with county taxpayer dollars, and the park commission feels that we need to make this site available to the broader public,” he said.
The idea for the project began after the county acquired a plot of property adjacent to the site on Hughes Drive in Hamilton in 2017.
Initially, research and planning began on how the newly acquired property could be repurposed.
“We realized we should be looking at a broader planning process to consider not only that property but also the dam site itself,” Cucchi says. “That is what lead to the park commissioners authorizing a planning process and contacting a consultant to develop a master plan for the site.”
The 4.5 acres of land on Hughes Drive allows for a direct access route to the dam site.
The area has been a county owned property since the 1970s and was acquired with the dual purpose of becoming a flood control facility and a recreational park, according to the Mercer County Park Commission.
Miry Run, a stream that runs through the property, was causing downfall and downstream flooding during storms. A plan was developed to establish a dam, so the county created a lake on the property in order to reduce the amount of flooding occurring.
“The goal of establishing a recreational area on the site did not happen,” Cucchi said.
However, Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede questions the commission’s goal of a passive recreation park, especially considering the delay in the third public meeting.
“Any delay adds to the residents’ concerns about the negative impact of development at that site,” she said during an August interview. “It’s definitive that passive recreation is not the only plan for this park.”
In two letters written by her to the Dam Site 21’s Community Advisory Committee Members in April and June, she voiced residential concerns to convey some of the “growing opposition.”
She stopped mincing words by mid-October, calling on county executive Brian Hughes to abandon plans to develop the site in an Oct. 15 letter. Yaede accused the county of delaying public meetings until opposition waned and the project could be pushed through easily. She also claimed the county’s plan, if approved, would harm the environment.
Yaede, in her letter, cited increased traffic on Hughes Drive and the impact on surrounding neighborhoods as key reasons the county should drop the Dam Site 21 project. She previously had requested the parks commission consider traffic along Hughes Drive, the impact of construction, security and maintenance and the close proximity to Mercer County Park.
Mercer County Parks Commission executive director Aaron Watson, in a Oct. 17 reply to Yaede, defended the project, saying, “While a group of vocal opponents exists, we would hope that Hamiltonians would discount the mistruths that a small interest group has been propagating and see the Dam Site 21 Master Planning process for what it truly is: a transparent public process to develop a long-range plan to improve a county-owned natural area for the benefit of Mercer County residents and our native wildlife species.”
Many of Yaede’s talking points were based on conversations she had with residents in the area. One of those residents is Mike Kerwick, who lives on Hughes Drive in Hamilton. He worries about the park’s impact on the property value of his home if the traffic along Hughes Drive increases.
“If we attempt to get into or out of our driveway at busy business hours, we could sit there for 2 to 3 minutes,” Kerwick said. “It doesn’t seem like a long time but it is a long time to get in and out of your driveway.”
In a letter written by Spadaccini to the board of trustees of the commission, he asked that “if you build the proposed improvements at [Dam Site 21], you alleviate any and all of the traffic issues at the site.”
Accident statistics for Hughes Drive between Edinburg Road and Flock Road from Jan. 1, 2016 to May 28, 2019 show 77 motor vehicle crashes in the area, according to data from the township.
When asked about conducting a traffic study, Cucchi says they are not too concerned about the new park increasing traffic. He added the county relies on existing traffic information and information collected about the property itself and the surrounding neighborhoods.
“There is a traffic problem on Hughes Drive,” Cucchi said. “However, our consultants have assured us that even at the busiest times, the use of the dam site if implemented will have no impact on the overall traffic issues that exist now.”
Spaddacini and his wife Jacqueline believe not enough residents know about the project and the possible issues surrounding its implementation. They have established friendsofdamsite21.org, a website whose mission statement is to “stop the unnecessary development” of the site.
Spadaccini also claims to have started a petition against the project that has collected more than 800 signatures. He did not provide the Hamilton Post with proof of this petition, but the Post did access an online petition through the Friends of Dam Site 21 website that had 294 signatures as of Oct. 16. An eight-page letter written by Spadaccini to the Board of Trustees addressing all of his concerns about Dam Site 21 is also available on the website.
“No one has a problem with cleaning up the trails that are there now,” Spaddacini says. “If you can do all that without impacting anyone, why wouldn’t you do that?”
He believes that the potential plans of developing public parking lots and installing public restrooms as well as increased security leading to construction will remove the “passive” elements of the site’s plans.
However, Cucchi believes that parking lots are necessary.
“If we didn’t establish parking lots people would start parking on the road, a lot of neighbors highlighted concerns of parking on the street, so we have been careful to consider parking lots on the property,” he says.
Cucchi acknowledges that Dam Site 21 is less than two miles away from Mercer County Park, and has heard suggestions to install the proposed amenities at the existing park instead.
“We’re not seeking to replicate the park,” he says, pointing out that active recreation such as soccer games takes place there. “There will be two very different feels if the Dam Site 21 master plan is implemented.”
The funding for the plan would come from an Open Space Preservation trust fund that county voters adopted several years ago and from the state’s Green Acres program that provides funding for park development, according to Cucchi.
The county has chosen Simone Collins Landscaping Architecture to be apart of the planning of the site.
Slides of the preliminary concepts of the commission’s plan, as well as minutes from the first two public meetings, are available on mercercountyparks.org.
A public survey is also available, presenting all of the suggestions and improvements of the site that Cucchi says they are taking into consideration.
“We are excited about not only addressing the concerns that a small amount of neighbors have but doing so in a way that it benefits the county residents as a whole,” Cucchi says. “We are making sure neighbors have a voice in this process before decisions are made about the park plan.”
At the Nov. 12 meeting, a draft plan will be presented to the public, which then has 60 days to provide feedback to the county. Based on the feedback, the county will finalize the plan and present it to the parks commission, who then will make the decision to ultimately approve it or not.
Cucchi said the park will improve property values and the quality of life of people living near the park. He also predicted residents throughout the region could reap benefits from the project.
“We believe that having a park that is a 10-minute walk away or easy walk or drive is an important quality of life feature,” Cucchi says. “By improving Dam Site 21, we will be improving water quality downstream all the way to the Delaware River.”