Rain was imminent and the temperature was dropping, but David Galda was still focused on his fishing line at the edge of a lake in Northfield’s Birch Grove Park.
“I come out here almost every day,” said Galda, of Galloway Township. “They stock river trout in here in November, and I fish all the way until they tell me I can’t. I caught a beautiful one last Tuesday, in 20 mph winds.”
Birch Grove holds a unique place among area parks: a municipal park in the middle of a small suburban community with the lakes and forested trails of county and state parks — and one that is surviving a budget crunch. County grants, which helped build a new walkway that will officially open April 1, have eased the financial pain.
Similar facilities in the region — such as Hammonton Lake Park or the Menantico Refuge in Millville — are either county parks or state wildlife refuges. Many other municipal parks are mostly recreational fields and playgrounds. Even Bridgeton City Park, which also includes forested trails, is located in a less densely populated region than suburban Northfield.
“It’s a real asset for the city of Northfield,” said City Councilman Tim Carew, chairman of the Birch Grove Park committee. “It’s a hidden gem.”
As budget issues continue, municipalities have been losing grants and funding. Vineland recently set fees for usage of recreational fields and rental of bleachers after it was determined that trash removal from its five parks cost more than $700 a week.
In Hamilton Township, officials have an arrangement with recreational leagues that calls for the leagues to do some of the maintenance work in return for first chance at using the fields.
One of the biggest issues, said Hamilton Administrator Mike Jacobs, is that county grants are designated for capital improvements and not regular maintenance.
“As budgets tighten, you have to pick your priorities,” Jacobs said. “But I wouldn’t think that there’s been any reduction in mowing the grass or anything like that. Some of the things that slip are, (for example,) not as much fertilizer being put down.”
State parks have also been facing budgetary issues. In 2011, Gov. Chris Christie, who said the state’s parks costs about $39 million each year but generate only about $8 million in revenue, pushed a plan to privatize certain aspects of park operations, as well as increase fees.
Over the years at Birch Grove, there have been occasional controversies over things such as the small zoo that was once on the site, the construction of a snack bar/meeting room, and, said Mayor Vince Mazzeo, the possibility of the park being taken over by the county — although accounts differ on whether those were just hypothetical discussions or whether the takeover was ever a real, viable idea.
Carew, for one, would not even hear of it.
“It’s deeded that way, to the residents and children of the city, with all intentions of it being a city-owned park,” Carew said. “Ask the generations of people who say they went fishing in Birch Grove Park, played on swings at Birch Grove Park,” Carew said.
City fathers, he said, “had the foresight to see what an asset it could be for the city. There’s nothing else like it around.”
The 270-acre park has its origins in a lost industry of South Jersey — brickmaking.
Joyce Pullan, projects director with the Northfield Cultural Committee, said the park was once the site of a brickyard owned by a branch of the Somers family. The clay pits, filled with water after being excavated, were the reason the series of lakes in the park ended up in their odd, fanned-out configuration.
“The clay was very good at making ‘colonial red’ brick,” Pullan said. “The brick was used all over the county and in other states. But the brick business hit a slump during the Depression, and it sat idle until the city acquired the property (in the 1950s) when it went into foreclosure.”
The park’s development over the past 10 years has not been smooth. Removal of the remnants of the small zoo to build a picnic area led to discussions about upgrading the snack bar building into a multiuse park center — which was eventually built using about $300,000 in Atlantic County Open Space funds.
While that number drew attention in a town with a then-median assessed value of a home of about $243,000, defenders said the money — part of a $6.6 million grant approved by the county freeholders for open space projects throughout the county — had to be used or lost.
Another Community Development Block Grant for about $50,000 from the Atlantic County Improvement Authority helped build the new walkways that stretch along the lake and allow handicapped access to the trails.
The trails will be the biggest change visitors see when the snack bar and picnic area open April 1.
“The whole idea of upgrades to the walkway and the park center, and maintaining the character of the park, that’s what the goal was,” Mazzeo said.
For Anna Lazos, of Egg Harbor Township, and Alina Afonina, of Galloway Township, Birch Grove is a place where they could bring their kids to the playground, as they did Monday, but also one where they could find a piece of wilderness in the middle of a suburb.
“It’s closer to nature, I guess,” Lazos said. “If the kids get bored, we can go walk around the lake and woods. … And it’s protected. There are always workers here, and you don’t feel like you’re in danger. I’m usually by myself with three kids, and I don’t feel scared in the woods. And it’s a big trail — you can get lost in there.”
Mazzeo added that “some people have different ideas about the park, like that it should be taken over by the county. Through the years, there have been discussions by other councilpeople. … But as long as I’m mayor, I feel Birch Grove Park should be part of Northfield. I grew up with Birch Grove Park as a Northfield facility — and that’s the way I look at it.”
Contact Steven Lemongello:
Follow @SteveLemongello on Twitter