Outrage at Revoked PSE&G Lease for Garden
People with plots or waiting for plots in the community garden said PSE&G was dishonest in their communications.
Outrage, disgust and disbelief were among the emotions expressed at the Tuesday night meeting of the Chatham Borough Community Garden Committee, gardeners and those on the waiting list for garden plots.
Gardeners learned recently PSE&G had revoked the lease agreement for the community garden due to safety concerns for the new monopoles which were installed as part of their North Central Reliability Project.
The Community Garden started leasing land from PSE&G near the intersection of Main Street and Division Avenue to create and open the garden in 2009. The borough formed the Community Garden Committee in January 2010 to facilitate the garden's opening.
The lease was renewed in 2010 and 2011. "Then in 2012 they started talking about this reliability project," Council President Len Resto said.
When gardeners attended public meetings with PSE&G to ask if the garden would be affected, they were told continuously it would not.
"I understand people talking in good faith, and PSE&G did not do that," Resto. "When we spoke with PSE&G at any one of those forums, the question was asked 'Are we going to be able to have a community garden,' and the answer was steadfastly 'Yes.'"
Resto said it was only at the end of February that PSE&G informed borough officials there was a safety concern with the garden.
First they said there was an issue with state wetlands near the garden. Borough Engineer Vincent J. DeNave met with the state Department of Environmental Protection and determined five plots from the garden would have to be given up. Still, Resto said, there was the expectation the garden could go on.
"Then PSE&G changed its tune, coming out with a safety standard that we thought was absolutely unreasonable and that they didn't tell us in the beginning," Resto said.
Demands included replacing the existing deer-proof fence with a nonconductive fence and eliminating any plots within 150 ft. of the monopole. Because of the utility's relationship with Chatham, PSE&G offered to reduce the radius to 130 ft.
"A hundred and fifty feet meant we would keep five plots, and 130 feet meant 10 plots, and we were not going to spend the money on a nonconductive fence for 10 plots," Resto said.
Gardeners said this was outrageous, since at the Livingston Mall, for example, a monopole was erected in the middle of the mall parking lot.
"For parking lots, [the safety limit is] 75 feet," DeNave said.
Marcy Wecker, one of the founding members of the garden committee, said, "They should have come up with these standards a year ago when we were in meetings with them. ... It feels like they just took one excuse after another to get us out of there."
DeNave said PSE&G also demanded there be no sprinklers in the garden, which means the existing system would have to be removed. There is an option to move the garden into other wetlands, but the land is not suitable for growing. "It would take a tremendous amount of work," he said.
Resto and DeNave said PSE&G never mentioned the reliability project in the first three years of the garden. "They said, 'We had no idea we were going to do this reliability project," DeNave said.
"That's baloney," several gardeners interjected.
"It's a utility putting profits over a community," Wecker said. Resto agreed, saying, "It's a utility without a conscience."
When gardeners asked DeNave what PSE&G said the specific safety concerns were, DeNave said he asked the question but never got an answer.
"Do I think it's unsafe? I don't," he said.
"It makes no sense," Resto said. "They were 'Yes'-ing us to death out of their community relations department. ... We deserve better," Resto said.
"I'd have more respect if they stuck with 150 feet, because I think saying '130 feet because we like you' doesn't sound like safety to me," DeNave said. "If it were really a safety thing, they'd be putting up nonconductive fencing themselves, and I don't see them doing that."
DeNave said he told PSE&G if any borough officials found another town or entity that was allowed to keep their leases under the monopoles, "We're going to have a big problem."
Ed DiFiglia brought paper, pens and envelopes to the meeting for people to write letters to PSE&G expressing their outrage.
"It's really just a horrible way to treat a community," Wecker said. "Either they were intentionally misleading or they were so incredibly incompetent."
Resto said the committee is looking for a location for a new community garden, and promised there would be a growing season in 2014. "It's a matter of finding the right location," DeNave said.
Borough-owned property along River Road was proposed, but DeNave pointed out the land is under JCP&L power lines and that utility will need access to their right-of-way. Their restrictions are much more lenient than PSE&G's, "but we've heard this before," DeNave said.
Until a new garden is decided upon, DeNave said gardeners have about a month to collect their plants, soil and other belongings from the garden before the borough has to start digging up the garden.
At the garden's ribbon cutting ceremony on May 1, 2010, several gardeners told Chatham Patch that Martha May, a local borough resident, inspired them to commit to the garden and help get it operational. Planning for the garden began in earnest in early 2009, around the time May died.
Marcy Wecker, who was the first chair of the Community Garden Committee, said Marta McDowell, former borough Mayor Nelson Vaughan and the borough council were also instrumental in getting the garden open. Tom and Mike Bucuk of Green Path Organic Landcare and Pete Coviello of Coviello Brothers donated supplies and labor to building the garden, and McDowell donated and planted flowers around the garden's entrance.