Although many offered support for the multi-million dollar transformation of one of the town's most historic sites, some came to raise concerns about details of the project such as traffic issues and the enforcement of anti-crabbing laws.
The project is being built by the town and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. It involves an area that was once a popular social gathering place and boating facility, and calls for the eventual construction of a park and environmental center there.
The first phase, which was just completed, included the construction of bulkheads - a solid wall along the water, some lighting, and the construction of a canoe launch. The next phase, officials say, will bring about many of the passive park features that would allow people to use the area for outdoor recreation, such as fishing and picnics.
The site, which is located at the mouth of Mill Creek along the northwester corner of Secaucus on the Hackensack River, is one of the few remaining historic places in the area. Its name derives from saw mills and grist mills that were apparently located there from about the 1760s with the last reported grist mill located there in 1840.
The site became a local hangout for area hunters and fishermen after Tony Calderone constructed a restaurant there known as Tony's Old Mill, even after he ceased to own the place.
In order to preserve the property as open space, the town of Secaucus purchased the land in 1999.
"That was done by then-Mayor Tony Just," said Mayor Dennis Elwell. "He and the council at the time were concerned about housing being built there, and we did not believe that was the appropriate use for the property."
Although the initial plans called for converting part of the original building to a recreation center, that aspect had to be scrapped when New Jersey Meadowlands Commission engineers found the structure too unusable.
The Meadowlands Commission agreed to use $530,000 from its environmental initiative bond to pay for architectural design and construction management services on the project. Under this plan, the 1.8-acre site would include a satellite for the NJMC Environment Center in Lyndhurst. Since then, the NJMC has also contributed $1 million for the acquisition of property adjacent to it - which will expand the park into a 7.5-acre area.
While it was originally envisioned as a two-phase project, representatives from the Meadowlands Commission said the project would be stretched out into additional phases, and some of the more significant development, such as the environmental center, would be included in the third phase.
"We look forward to working with Secaucus to see the Mill Creek Point Park plan through to completion," said Susan Bass Levin, NJMC Chairman and Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, in a prepared statement. "Mill Creek Point Park is another shining example of Gov. McGreevey's dedication to working together to preserve New Jersey's precious open spaces. Together, with our municipal and county government partners, we are making the making the Meadowlands a better, more beautiful place to live - for all of the towns within the District."
Part of a larger open space program
This work is part of an ongoing initiative to preserve open space and link these open spaces through what are called greenways as well as waterways. This park will be an important link in a 15-mile waterfront trail that is expected to extend all the way downstream for the whole river boundary of Secaucus to Laurel Hill Park at the most southern extreme.
Mill Point Park will be seen as the anchor of Secaucus' northern recreation area, which includes athletic fields. Mill Creek Point Park is also situated between two large tracts of wetlands with a 260-acre enhanced Mill Creek Marsh to the east and a 38-acre wetlands area near the Secaucus High School which is slated shortly for enhancement.
Phase two in the park calls for the construction of an Urban Waterfront promenade with a seating and wildlife observation area, an entrance road upgrade, and construction of a drop-off area, landscaping, and the removal of the currently closed shooting range and the remediation of some of the property. After decades of pistol practice at that site, the commission must do lead cleanup.
Several residents raised concerns about the traffic that would be going in and out of the site, asking if the road would be widened and improved. They asked what impact they could expect from the new use.
Bob Ceberio, executive director of NJMC, said for the most part, school buses accessing the site for scheduled events at area schools.
Michael Gonnelli said a new sports field is being constructed in the area and that the road would be widened as part of the park.
While saying the area would see some new traffic because people will be seeking to use the park, he said this would not nearly equal the volumes people might have expected if the land was developed for housing as once planned.
Some of the local fishermen asked about the new rail that would be installed around the edge of the water, a decorative rail with wildlife images that some fishermen were concerned would interfere with kids being able to fish. Officials said they would look into the matter.
One other fisherman argued against the ban on crabbing, saying that he used the crabs as bait.
Riverkeeper Bill Keeper informed the crowd that the ban was in place because the crabs that feed on the bottom of the river are among the most polluted. But the fisherman said since the crabs are being used as bait, not for human consumption, the restriction should not be enforced.
Flooding is a huge concern for residents in the area, because during high-tide storms, water actually comes up out of the street drains and floods yards and basements.
Gonnelli said the Commission was taking over that aspect of the project because of delays by the Army Corps of engineers.