By Jay Cook |MIDDLETOWN –Middletown is the largest municipality in Monmouth County, but when it comes to the amount of land set aside for open space, how does it compare to others?Better than you would think, Middletown Mayor Gerry Scharfenberger told residents earlier this week.Spread across 41 square miles, Middletown has about 5,500 acres of preserved open space inside its township borders – and up to 6,000 if land with conservation easements are counted, Scharfenberger said.To put it in perspective, that’s equal in total acreage to the size of two Atlantic Highlands, four Fair Havens and seven Sea Brights. “That’s very impressive, and I don’t think people realize the extent of what we have here,” Scharfenberger said.The Dec. 5 land use forum at the Middletown Arts Center was the fourth held by Scharfenberger and township administrator Tony Mercantante in the past 18 months. Other land use forums focused on development and redevelopment, revitalizing Route 36 and land-use planning. Tuesday night’s theme was how to prevent overdevelopment while encouraging sensible growth. The officials gave an overview on Middletown’s current open space situation, which they believe will improve as 2018 approaches.Looking at the NumbersMercantante said Middletown has been active in acquiring open space through the state Green Acres program since around 1999. The program provides funding so municipalities can add land to their inventories.According to Mercantante, there have been 17 Green Acres acquisitions totaling 223 acres. The total purchase cost is about $26 million, of which the township was obliged to pay $10.3 million, with the remainder covered by different public and private entities.“The biggest challenge is negotiating with property owners, trying to come to terms with acquiring a piece of property and then decide why we’re acquiring it,” Mercantante said.The most expensive of those 17 properties is the 40-acre Fisher-Stern plot, which became part of the Monmouth County Park System in 2005 as the Claypit Creek extension to Hartshorne Woods. The property was acquired with help from the county, Monmouth Conservation Foundation (MCF), the state’s Green Acres Program and the township. That single purchase cost those entities a total of $10.4 million at the time, with Middletown paying $1.9 million.Middletown open space purchases are funded through a two-cent tax per $100 of assessed property valuation, Scharfenberger said. That open space tax first commenced in 1999, when Middletown became active in purchasing property.That tax complements the new county Open Space Trust Fund tax increase approved by voters in November. When it goes into effect in 2018, the county projects over $14 million more annually available in the fund.Scharfenberger said the final piece to the open space puzzle should come in the next calendar year. About $1.5 million is owed to Middletown by the state through purchase reimbursements. Not having that money has limited the township, both officials said, and they anticipate more purchases coming in the near future.“Now we’re building a little bit of a war chest and looking around to purchase more open space as those reimbursements come in from the state,” Scharfenberger said.Success StoriesPreserving the right pieces of land has been the focus of Middletown’s open space mission over the past two decades, Mercantante said. With it comes the balance of preservation and development, considering “every property owner has the right to utilize their property in some reasonable fashion,” he said.Outside of the Fisher-Stern property, he highlighted two other instances where residential or commercial development was halted and that land was purchased.The first piece of open space is Bicentennial Park, a 10-acre swath of wooded land, a brook and pond, with a walking pier out to the water. It’s bordered by Route 35 South (and a Burger King) but stretches back along Twin Brooks Avenue and Spruce Drive on either side. Mercantante said the “great piece of open space” was proposed as a condo-office complex but the township stepped in to purchase the area. The $850,000 total price tag cost Middletown $425,000.The other noted property is Swimming River Park, a county-owned park planned for redevelopment in the next few years. For decades the site was Chris’ Landing, a popular boat launch for small watercraft and recreational kayakers, anchored by Chris’ Deli on site. Scharfenberger said a developer had plans to build a housing complex on the 16-acre site, but MCF and the county stepped in to purchase the land for $3.8 million in 2015.Refurbishing Forgotten ParksWith 49 active parks in town ranging from Lincroft to Leonardo, some have fallen by the wayside and could be earmarked for upgrades or new uses.The best example, Mercantante said, is the forlorn Camp Hope buried back in Lincroft Acres off Newman Springs Road. The old campground is accessible by a dirt road behind the two soccer fields and is surrounded by the Swimming River watershed.The day camp for children with disabilities was shut down about a decade ago and remains closed. In the years since, the pool, pergola, picnic tables and facilities have fallen into disrepair. This year, Mercantante said a nonprofit organization contacted the town looking to reestablish a summer camp in Middletown, and Camp Hope was the first location on his mind.Middletown is working with them now, he said, to install another pool and improve the facilities.Finding new purposes for other recreational parks in town will be a focus as well. Mercantante said repurposing Middletown’s three outdoor roller hockey rinks will be on the agenda. Two of those are currently shut down, he said, and the third is scarcely used anymore. What could they turn into? Maybe pickleball, he said, considering the sport’s growing popularity and requests from residents.“Those are the kinds of things we always have to be mindful of in the future, either using existing fields or construction of new ones,” Mercantante said.On the other hand, there are no plans to replace the Cavadas Skate Park on Pulsch Street in Belford, Scharfenberger said.Opened in 2003 after being purchased for $165,000, the 0.7-acre skate park was shut down by the township in 2010 amid concerns from township police. Scharfenberger said the “major league headache” had over 500 complaints to the police in one year. “It just didn’t pay for the upkeep and constant repairs,” he said.“We see no need nor desire on our part to reopen it,” he added. “That’s closed for the foreseeable future.”This article was first published in the Dec. 7-14, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.