NORTHFIELD — The bike path that winds from Somers Point through Linwood and Northfield is dotted with memorial benches and trees purchased from the cities and placed in memory of a special friend or family member or to mark an occasion. Each of the benches has a small plaque spelling out who the bench is in remembrance of and serves as a respite for walkers. For some the benches are a place to remember or connect with the person memorialized.
Recently those bike path benches have come under scrutiny in Northfield after several complaints came to the attention of Mayor Erland Chau. The complaints centered on people adding things such as plants, flags, pictures or signs and leaving them until, in some cases, they became tattered or unsightly.
Chau said he was concerned that public works employees who cut the grass along the bike path have to work around the planters or other enhancements that have been left or planted along at the memorial benches. He drew up suggested policies for the memorial benches and trees along the bike path and presented it to council in August.
Chau’s suggested policies define what is permitted at the benches, spelling out holidays and timelines for flags, flag holders or wreathes to be permitted as well as potted plants. Cut flowers as well as artificial flowers are permitted throughout the year in an approved ground-level vase. Glass or ceramic vases are not permitted. Signs, banners, statues or anything affixed to the bench that may hinder or obstruct the bench from its purpose would likewise not be permitted. The proposal also prohibits balloons or any type of lighting including vigil lights, candles, solar- or battery-powered lights.
Linda Gussie, of Linwood, has a memorial tree for her father close to her home. “I always make sure that the tree and the area around it looks nice, and I enjoy it,” she said while stopped during an afternoon bike ride. She said she also tends to some of the trees near her dad’s, adding that people have planted trees who are no longer in the area, and they need a little care now and then. Gussie said she enjoys the bike path frequently and enjoys looking at the memorial benches and trees. “It is a nice spot to reflect and think about the person,” said the retired school nurse.
Grief counselor Christine Droney, of Galloway Township, called memorials such as the benches a continuing bond. “People have to grieve, and they grieve in many different ways. Having memorials like the benches in our community can be a healthy thing; it can be a place to feel connected to someone and feel that connection continue after they are gone,” said Droney. “If we are to be a community that is culturally competent then we need to allow people to express themselves. Just because a person dies, the relationship does not end. In the world of death and dying, things like roadside memorials are ways of letting go but still keeping that relationship.”
Casey Brenner was just 18 when he was killed in an accident along with three other Mainland football players in August 2011. His father John, a retired Atlantic City firefighter, frequents his son’s memorial bench. “I can’t go to the cemetery, I just can’t. But I can come here and sit down and connect,” Brenner said. He said other people have told him they feel a connection. “People will come by and leave things and remember Casey. They leave cards or notes, plants, or they will hang something on the tree we planted. I think it allows people to feel a connection.” He said he has been asked to remove several things from the area, such as solar lighting, and when asked, he complied.
City Councilman Frank Perri said he is in favor of uniformity along the bike path, adding that the city is tasked with maintaining the bike path, and when people add planters or plant flowers in the area around the trees or benches it creates a problem for the public works employees who have to take care of the area. Perri said it is also a concern that when there is a storm, items left behind can become projectiles. “I am just in favor of it being uniform with minimal additions like trees or bushes. I would like to see people just enjoy the bench or the tree with the plaque on it. If it is uniform, we cut out the complaints” said Perri. He was also concerned that in the case of a storm those items that people have left will become airborne and can do some damage.
The veteran councilman and former mayor said the original design when the bike path was built using funds from the Intermodal Transportation Fund prohibited parking and smoking along the bike path that was later changed when handicapped parking access was added. The lights came later, using county open-space funding.
Several other Northfield council members weighed in against establishing any type of policy with respect to the bike path memorials. Jim Travagline said the bike path memorial benches are a sensitive issue, and he would prefer to allow people to use good taste and good judgment in regard to the benches, adding that if there were a concern it would be handled on an individual basis. City Council President Greg Dewees likewise said that because the complaints have been minimal, he would not like to see a set of rules put in place adding that it is unnecessary.
Neither Somers Point nor Linwood have a specific policy in place for bike path memorial benches or trees, and said it has not been a problem. Linwood City Clerk Leigh Ann Napoli said they city relies on the people who have purchased the memorial bench to exercise good taste.
For Northfield City Council to do anything on establishing formal rules for bikepath memorials it would need to return as an agenda item for the members to consider voting on.
According to the Linwood Historical Society, the bike path was created over the old Shore Fast Line Trolley tracks that cut through the mainland communities on the way to and from Atlantic City. When the use of cars increased after World War II, the need for the commuter rail line decreased, and it quit running altogether in the early 1960s. The abandoned rail lines became one of the first rails to trails project in the state.