Residents who live near the United Water reservoir on Palisade Avenue made one thing emphatically clear at a meeting last week: they do not want to see the basin sold and privately developed, and they’ve urged the township to buy the reservoir, if necessary, to keep it under public control as open space.
Over 90 per cent of some 200 residents in attendance encouraged the council to purchase the reservoir at an unofficial asking price of $11.5 million.
The entire 14-acre facility, a 10-acre lake and four acres of dry land, is owned by United Water, a subsidiary of Suez Environment, a French water-management firm that wants to sell by the end of the year. The company said it’s being a “good neighbor” by giving the township a chance to purchase the property before entertaining more profitable bids from private companies, but the township simply needs more time.
“This is big.” – Mayor Richard Turner
The township has hired two private appraisal firms to verify the value of the reservoir, and a lawyer to look into the legality of the sale with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. After making sure residents were in favor of the purchase, which was fairly evident after the Oct. 19 meeting, township officials are doing everything they can to secure the sale.
Officials said they would even look into condemning the land for public use, if necessary – a process that would stall the sale, giving the township more time to purchase the property.
“It’s 10 acres of land in one of the most densely populated areas in the country,” said Mayor Richard Turner. “This is big.”
The township’s projected 2011 budget is already $36.4 million, and officials said federal, state, and county grants are needed to help pay for the venture.
But even with cooperation from United Water, the acquisition is an uphill battle for the township. Questions that officials are still looking into – like whether or not specific grants can be applied for after the property in question has already been purchased – are still being answered.
On the four acres of land that United Water is not selling along Palisade Avenue, the company plans to build an underground water-holding tank at a cost of $30 million. The project is scheduled to get underway in 2016 with an estimated construction time of 12 to 18 months.
Township officials said they would like to buy the entire 14.4 acres at the same $11.5 million, but give United Water an easement to use the land for a water tank, in case the company ever decided to leave and put that land up for sale.
“The purchase will be costly, but we can’t let developers take control,” Turner said. “People want skyline views. Developers want to build high rises.”
Another dimension to the deal is Gregory Park, a small park on Gregory Avenue, which is actually owned by United Water.
“They gave us a 99-year easement to use the park,” Turner said. “That will become part of the [possible] package as well.”
Even with Weehawken’s property taxes on the rise, most residents were adamant about protecting the property for future township use. Architect Mark Gould, wearing a black jumpsuit and running shoes, apologized for his appearance, saying he just got back from a workout in “open space” along the waterfront.
“I agree 100 per cent with what the township council and the mayor are doing,” he said – a common sentiment with residents. “We’re not out for a profit. We’re out for quality of life in the community.”
Another neighborhood resident, who lives right on Palisade Avenue, said the reservoir is like having a “beautiful lake” in her backyard.
“We moved to Weehawken so we don’t have to live [like] Hoboken,” she said.
But some less wistful residents, like Sid Bernstein, said that plans for the space should be thoroughly considered. “There is a lot of potential value in the property and not only for open space,” he said. “We need a master plan and look into providing plenty of open space for residents, while still creating revenue.”
Although it is not certain how much residents will pay for the property, the mayor said having control over the eventual fate of the reservoir is paramount.
“Can I say with absolute certainty there will be no cost to taxpayers?” the mayor said. “Absolutely not.” But, for the township, not buying the land could be much more costly.
Sean Allocca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org