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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Squabble over bridge may stall site's debut

Star-Ledger Staff

Stillwater in dispute with Sparta group

A Sparta lake community claims it simply is trying to preserve history by demanding that an unused 1911 one-lane bridge in its neighborhood be kept intact when it is relocated to Stillwater.

Stillwater officials say that is not possible, and that the legal fight could delay the scheduled spring opening of a 46-acre recreation area.

The state Department of Transportation was scheduled to begin a $2.7 million project of replacing the West Mountain Road bridge with a two-lane structure on Monday, but a judge gave the Lake Grinnell Association until yesterday to argue its case.

Superior Court Judge Theodore Bozonelis extended the no-work order until today, but he is ex pected to lift it once the DOT provides evidence that the state Historic Preservation Office approved the use of portions of the timber and stone bridge for a foot bridge at a Stillwater park.

But that likely will not be the end of the fight.

Stuart Lieberman, attorney for the Lake Grinnell Association, said there is a "very realistic chance we're going to seek further relief" from an appellate court "or some other avenue" if Bozonelis lifts the restraints. He would not say what the other options were.

In the mid-1990s, the DOT and Sussex County decided the 55-foot-long, 17-foot-wide bridge, built over the New York Susque hanna & Western Railroad line, needed replacing.

Stillwater agreed to take the bridge, which the state Historic Preservation Office in 1990 deemed to be eligible for the state and national Registers of Historic Places.

It has been closed to traffic since 2000, when an oversized truck damaged guardrails on it.

Lake Grinnell residents contend an agreement signed in 1997 re quires Stillwater to preserve the bridge as is, and only learned last month that only a small portion of the bridge would be incorporated into a footbridge at Pond Brook Park.

"They feel very much that they were misled," Lieberman said.

Stillwater attorney Richard Clark told Bozonelis the plan was never to use the bridge as is, noting the pedestrian bridge is only going to be 8 feet wide.

Clark said the township must start work on the bridge before Nov. 1, or the park's spring opening would be delayed for months, he said.

"Stillwater is in a real bind," he said.

Clark said the Lake Grinnell residents' true intent is to keep their neighborhood closed to Route 94 traffic.

"They don't want the new bridge in its place," he said.

John Naisby III, 68, a lifelong Sparta resident and association trustee, agreed.

"We say the bridge ought to stay right where it is. It's not a needed thoroughfare," Naisby said. He fears a two-lane bridge would lead to heavy traffic and contamination of Lake Grinnell.

"Our duty is to preserve the history, which preserves the environment," Naisby said.

He also predicts accidents on the neighborhood's narrow, windy road.

The community was established in the 1880s, and originally housed mostly railroad employees. It consists of 45 homes, most of which are summer cottages, Naisby said.

Margaret McHugh covers the Morris County Courthouse. She may be reached at [email protected] or (973) 539-7119.