written for the Roosevelt Borough Bulletin, January(?) 1995

Down the street from our house is an area where the woods engulf both sides of the road, and very small bridge (more like a large culvert) passes over the Assunpink Creek. The speed limit on the local street is a maximum of 25 mph. The Borough Council "improved" the road and installed some heavy-duty guardrails, pretty much curtailing easy access to the woods or the creek.

I Hate the Guardrails

Brad Garton

I hate the guardrails. For those who haven't seen them, drive down Tamara Drive through the once-forested place just beyond Bernarda Bryson Shahn's house and look for the rusting metal structures that now grace the landscape.

Perhaps I am more aware of this particular spot in Roosevelt than than others. Every day I usually walk with my seven-month old son Daniel down to where the Assunpink crosses under the Tamara Drive roadway. We used to sit and watch the water, listen to the sounds of nature, watch the leaves fall -- precious activities that are every day becoming more difficult for our children to experience. Often we would encounter other children tossing twigs into the stream of searching for frogs. We can't do that any more. The guardrails are up.

Actually, the guardrails are just the icing on the proverbial cake in this place, a cake baked using ingredients arising from the wholesale contamination of a small but once-beautiful corner of our town. At one time, this area was so pleasant and inviting that my wife and I would occasionally take our daughter there for an afternoon picnic. I recall a cool, green stretch of road where the trees formed a near-perfect arch overhead. The trees were decimated during the great $140/month (now down to $130 -- gee,,, thanks, guys!) sewer plant improvement. The resulting wasteland was further scoured of life by the "improvements" to Tamara Drive. Somehow flowers and trees don't flourish beneath bulldozers, blacktop machines and barrels of petroleum gunk.

I've tried to imagine the logic that resulted in the guardrails. Why were they such a necessary project? Of course, from an aesthetic perspective, the ruined metal does work well with the twisted carcasses of fallen trees in the background -- perhaps it is meant as a comment on post-industrial man. Too bad for us that the outdoor installation is permanent, however.

But I doubt that the Council had an artistic experience in mind when they endorsed the environmental destruction of Tamara drive. Probably the two most popular reasons they will give for the guardrails are:

1. They were built for SAFETY!

This tired old excuse has been used time and time again to justify projects that Rooseveltians neither want nor can afford. Think how much SAFER Lake Drive is now that the drag strip runs unhindered to Rt. 571. Farm Lane is certainly much SAFER after becoming part of the Roosevelt Speedway. And I have noticed that motorists are much more cautious now that Tamara Drive is wide, smooth, and built for speed.

I'll bet there was a desperate need for the guardrails. A catalog of fatalities involving vehicles plunging into the depths of the Assunpink Creek along Tamara Drive will surely reveal that this is one of the world's true danger spots. Thank goodness we're protected! Thank goodness we're now SAFE!

2. The State MANDATED the guardrails.

Aw, c'mon -- when will we stop treating State mandates as edicts from the Mouth of God? It's time to just say no. What would be the result of not following every single solitary precise word of each State mandate? We might get fined! Ooooooo, we're so frightened! How much worse could it be? The penalties we pay in fines at this point might be less than what we are paying in order to meet the mandates. Perhaps if we simply told the State that we cannot afford to meet their blanket requirements, they might be willing to negotiate or compromise. At least we would have a bargaining position. This seems to fly in the face of current Council strategy. however: capitulate to all demands and then hope for the best. Yikes!

There is a third reason for the work being done around town (including the guardrails), work which is being undertaken to change the character of our town forever. Maliciously or unconsciously, the Council has adopted a pro-residential development mindset that has infected all policies relating to the future of the Borough.

It is this subtle third reason that is the most disturbing to me. For the past five years, I have watched as the Lee Allen/Peter Warren "New Dawn" Council has done virtually everything possibly to "clear to allow for development" [quote from Lee Allen, November 1994 Borough Bulletin]. It is this blindered belief that further residential development will bring more 'ratables' that has driven the decisions resulting in our incredible tax rate and our mind-boggling water/sewer bill. SO we wind up paying for the future development in order to attract the development that will reduce our payments... Cart before the horse? Jeez, the horse is dead and the cart is broken -- and the Mayor and Council are proud of their record of achievement!?!

How has this happened? How has this pro-development mindset affected the governance of our town? Basically, "improvements" are being undertaken with the premise to plan for residential growth -- at least 300 units more, if I read the scattered public statements correctly. Perhaps by using the silly neo-positivist numerical arguments so beloved of the pro-development camp, the Tamara guardrails can give a better indication as to the scope of the future residential development conceived by the Council. Because the guardrails on Tamara Drive are approximately 3.6 times as long as the equivalent guardrails on Rt. 571, we can assume that the Council is planning for a proportional increase in traffic along Tamara Drive (why else would they build such lengthy guardrails?). Assuming a rate of 1.79 cars/household and factoring in the current traffic differential between Rt. 571 and Tamara Drive, we can extrapolate to an equivalent expansion of 14.97 -- which leads to... Holey Smokes! 300 new units! [note: I hope that my little exercise in Sarcastic Math here will be taken about as seriously as the other "studies" designed to show how much we need further residential development.]

For all the rhetoric, the Council isn't truly desiring an increase in ratables with this talk of projected development. "Development" to the Council refers exclusively to residential growth. Any planner will tell you that increasing 'ratables' almost always means fostering commercial development. Have we? What have we done to attract business to Roosevelt? Has the Council worked with the State Chamber of Commerce? Have we contacted the Small Business Administration to see what we can to do make our town viable? People such as the Rossis and the Rocchias should be encouraged to continue working in our town. Instead, I suspect they are becoming mightily discouraged by the tax rate and utility bills imposed upon us by our wise and fearless Borough leaders -- all because of some wondrous vision of townhouses and condominiums surrounding Roosevelt. And we are already paying to make them possible.

It's just sad. Most sane people look at residential development as a negative drag on the local economy. Call the New Jersey League of Municipalities, look at any number of studies of towns similar in size to Roosevelt, ask regional planners with no vested interest here in Roosevelt; all will tell you that residential development is at best a break-even proposition.

Let's give the Council the benefit of the doubt, and assume that we may experience a slight (and believe me, it will be slight, if any) decrement in our municipal bills. What sort of development will it be? What will we lose?

Take a look around. Townhouses and condos "in keeping with the character of the Borough"? -- HA! From the beauteous curbs of Nurko Road to the guardrails of Tamara Drive, the actions of the Council speak far louder than words. You see, the guardrails are more than just a mere eyesore; they are a symbol. They represent a systematic attack on the very uniqueness that makes Roosevelt a desirable place to live. Read the recent activities of the Council as a text, and you will find it has a straightforward and terrible story to tell. It's the story of Dutch Neck, of Plainsboro, of Grover's Mill. It's a story of greed fueled by a misguided and poorly imagined conception of what our town should be and how we should live. It makes me hate the guardrails even more.

In the last Borough Bulletin, Lee Allen issues a heartfelt call for more participation by the public, and Peter Warren appears to lay much of the blame for our astronomical tax rate at the lack of public involvement(?). I guess my question would be: what exactly do you want us to participate in? If it is participation in the planning and foresight that has indeed given us our ludicrous tax and utility rates (and has cost each of us about $20,000 -- 30,000 in real property value, then I will politely -- but not respectfully -- say no. The guardrails have already been built.