AVALON — Margaret and Dan Griffin have owned their 74th Street home for more than 40 years.
From their living room, the Griffins can see egrets and herons across the street in Armacost Park. As part of an outspoken group, they are working to keep the borough from making any changes to the 11-acre park.
Avalon has been studying the land since 2010, hoping to restore it to what it was more than a century ago. They say they want to keep it natural, but “natural” is a loosely defined term after more than a century of human development on this, and most, barrier islands.
“It was natural until man started to fool with it,” said Mayor Martin Pagliughi.
The park is one of several preserved, small wildlife habitats on barrier islands along the New Jersey shoreline that are the last remnants of what the land looked like before widespread development of coastal resorts.
Named after Marion P. Armacost, wife of former Mayor Ellsworth Armacost, it was first designated a community park in 1959, when there were fewer than 700 people living in Avalon. Even then, the land was disturbed. Both Ocean and Dune drives already flanked the land and cut off the tidal flow that used to make the area a wetland habitat and maritime forest.
The borough used grant money in 1973 to create a freshwater habitat. The pocket park was meant to attract waterfowl. What the borough did attract was invasive vegetation that remains a problem today.
Griffin thinks that any human intrusion on the land, such as the wetland delineation study done earlier this week, will ultimately scare away birds that have taken to the refuge.
“We pay our taxes, and all we ask is that they listen to us,” said Griffin. “But they don’t want to be bothered. They want to do what they want to do.”
This is not the first time that Griffin and other locals have fought against borough plans to modify the park. The government dropped a more aggressive project in 1995 that would have built walking paths through the land.
Residents fear that is the goal again today.
“It seems to me that Avalon borough is trying to put their stamp on it and convert a completely natural habitat for wildlife into more of a recreational park,” said resident Robert Pellini. “They’re kind of taking away the last bit of natural habitat for a park for people.”
But the borough says that has nothing to do with what it is doing.
“We’d like to see it come back as natural as possible,” Pagliughi said. “It’s like the only natural place left on the island.”
The borough has the support of the government’s environmental commission and its largest homeowner group, and since 2010 it has been working with Clinton-based Windward Consulting to study the land.
Paul Schroek, a principal at Windward, said Armacost looks nothing like it would have had it not been disturbed so often over the past several decades. Windward’s work could make it much more attractive to wildlife and native plants, he said.
Schroek said the plan is to continue their surveys of what is growing there into the fall, collect the data and release a report detailing what is currently living on the land. Next year, he said, they will meet with stakeholders and see if they can find a consensus about what should be done.
“That particular habitat is so rare along the barrier island chain,” he said. “It really doesn’t exist anymore. And if let go, you certainly risk losing what has already been mostly lost.”
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