In 2020, while we navigated the pandemic, a 50-year-old nonprofit called American Rivers named the Delaware River its River of the Year for “momentous progress for water quality, river restoration and community revitalization.”

Bordentown Waterfront Park

An aerial photograph of Bordentown with the area of Bordentown’s proposed waterfront park outlined. (Photo by Max Spann Real Estate and Auction Co.)

With the announcement, Bob Irvin, president and CEO of American Rivers, called the Delaware River “a national success story” thanks to “the hard work of many local advocates who understand that a healthy Delaware River is vital to the health of millions of people.” According to American Rivers, more than 17 million people get their drinking water from the Delaware River basin, including New York City and Philadelphia. The Delaware river begins in Hancock, New York, and flows through five states on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Adding to that continued success in 2020 was the Bordentown Township Committee, which made the commitment to acquire 72 acres of land along the Delaware, saving it from a housing redevelopment.

The move by the township also set into motion plans to preserve the property while providing river access to local residents and visitors.

At a meeting in October 2022, the Bordentown Township Committee reviewed a conceptual presentation for a waterfront park which contains mainland property on the west side of the railroad tracks which run along Rte. 130, and property on the eastern end of Newbold Island. Michael Theokas, the Bordentown Township administrator, said, “we’re all super excited” about the land acquisition and conceptual plan, “but it’s going to take time” to get the park to where it can be enjoyed by people.

This story begins in 2010 when the owner of the 72 acres, developer Jeffrey Albert, received approval from the Bordentown Township Planning Board to build a transit village in the location. According to one news account, the project design included the building of “674 apartments, condominiums and townhouses in two-to-four-story buildings divided into seven neighborhoods, along with retail uses.”

But the property on the west side of U.S. 130, once used for industrial businesses, had been designated as a contamination site by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The township created a redevelopment zone there in an effort to encourage and financially assist with development.

One such former business was Doan’s Salvage Basin. Ships were dismantled at Doan’s, and metal sold for scrap. In 1951, workers dismantled the S.Y. Grille, the yacht owned by Adolf Hitler. In 1951, an ad in the Doylestown-Intelligencer announced an “open inspection” opportunity of the yacht on May 12 and 13 at a cost of 75 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.

The bar from that yacht was recently auctioned off in Maryland. The unidentified owner of that relic told a Guardian of London reporter: “My father was close friends with the owner of Doan Salvage Yard. The yard owner personally invited him to the yard and gave him the opportunity to purchase the bar.”

Albert, the property owner, had planned to remediate the site in the second phase of his transit village development. But over time, the transit village concept — which NJ Transit pedaled in several communities, including Hamilton — lost its luster. And, Albert couldn’t find companies willing to clean and build on the property.

So, he decided to put the land up for auction. In stepped Theokas, who helped negotiate the sale of the property to the township for $4.6 million.

The township was a partner in bonding with the developer for environmental remediation and infrastructure, Theokas said. The bonding funds would have been returned in taxes after the development; the township would have had input on the project as the funding partner. Had the land been auctioned, the agreed upon partnership would have evaporated. Consequently, Theokas and the township committee members agreed that acquiring the land would be a good decision.

“The township committee saw the value of leaving the area as an open space,” Theokas said. “So, the township purchased the property from the developer with the intent for not developing it, but maintaining it as open space and a public park.”

But township ownership led to a looming question, Theokas noted: “We own 72 acres on the mainland. Now what?”

The “now what” was answered in three ways. First, Theokas reached out to the Department of Community Affair, which provides planning services for municipalities. The DCA looked at the development needs and property potential, ultimately designing a concept plan.

In the meantime, Theokas and the township committee started building a coalition of organizations in an effort to learn from the experiences of others. And third, the township reached out to the community to solicit ideas, asking: what amenities should a park contain?

Theokas believes that since the community outreach piece happened during the pandemic, the township enjoyed robust participation. There was an online poll survey, as well as outreach sessions via Zoom. The consistent message from all corners, Theokas said, was: “Conservation, passive recreation and environmental preservation.”

The new waterfront park will support all that. People will be able to hike, kayak and canoe. Motorized vehicles will be prohibited. There will be swaths of land preserved for the native wildlife and flora on the property, especially on the portion of Newbold island where eagles nest.

Newbold island is named after the Newbold family who, along with the Biddles, farmed the island. The indigenous people of the area called the island Chepiessink.

At some point in time, PSE&G purchased a significant portion of the island intending to construct a nuclear power facility. There was push back about the plan from many corners, including from the federal government and local residents.

The federal government succeeded in having the utility company move the nuclear power facilities further south along the river to Salem and Hope Creek. Currently, PSE&G is negotiating with DEP to sell its Newbold Island holding to the state under the Green Acres program.

While Bordentown Township has a concept plan in place, there are still many unanswered questions. Which governmental entity would provide emergency services, for example, like water rescues? Which entity will take care of the trash collection? Would the state provide park rangers? The county? Would the county take over the park and connect it to Crystal Lake park across the street?

Theokas said he and the township committee are realists when it comes to how this property will ultimately be developed, and what government entity will eventually take responsibility for what he called “a legacy project.”

“The township doesn’t have the means to develop the property alone,” Theokas said, noting it will take a coalition of organizations to reach the end goal. Funding will have to come through grants, for example, and donations.

“We phased the projects so that resources can be found,” Theokas noted. “The environmental remediation factor is an important piece.”

There are freshwater mussels on the island which will need to be relocated, Theokas said. “To relocate mussels, for example, is a big deal. There are specific times of the year to relocate,” he said.

He noted again that the southern part of the mainland was in great need of remediation. “We are working diligently with the DEP on the remediation of the property.”

Theokas said the township will start with small projects first. “We’re going to have to have some public parking. We’re going to have walking paths, maybe benches or a gazebo, and educational signage,” he added.

“The highlight,” Theokas said, “will be the boat launch for canoes and kayaks.”

Theokas also acknowledged that the concept may be adapted and changed over time given any number of factors, including what government entity will ultimately manage the location. No matter if one entity runs the park, or several, Theokas said, the clean-up and preservation of this property “is going to have huge benefits for the township forever.” He added, “this is why we talk about legacy projects and the future.”

Sue Ferrara thanks Maria Baratta, director of the State Library Information Center at the New Jersey State Library. “Ms. Baratta is the rock star librarian who helped track down the ownership of Newbold Island to the Newbold family. When I hit the dead ends of research, she is always there to help me finish the job!” she says.

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