The Mercer County Park Commission’s purchase of a small plot of land on Hughes Drive in Hamilton in 2017 opened up a world of possibilities for the commission and—by extension—county residents.
The commission has started planning and researching potential park improvements to a 370-acre parcel called Dam Site 21. The park occupies land where the borders of Hamilton, Robbinsville and West Windsor meet, south of Mercer County Park.
As part of that planning process, the commission is seeking input from county residents to design a passive recreation park with a focus on using a large lake for water sports. According to a park commission release, the funds for this restoration process are derived from the Open Space Preservation Trust Fund.
Dam Site 21 was planned as part of the Assunpink Creek Watershed Water Works Plan in the early 1960s, the county’s approach to reduce flood damage and develop water resources in the Assunpink Watershed. The land of Dam Site 21 was bought in the 1970s, and the dam was built in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service. Since then, the land has been held and used for permanent recreation and conservation of water resources.
The lake in Dam Site 21 is around 55 acres, and the nearby area comprises undeveloped uplands, wetlands, woodlands, and open fields. A portion of the Capital to Coast Trail runs along the northern side of the lake from Line Road in Robbinsville to Old Trenton Road in West Windsor.
While the area is used by the public for fishing and hiking activities, there is currently limited access and amenities. The purchase of 4.5 acres of land fronting Hughes Drive created, for the first time, the potential of direct access to the site from a major roadway.
Around a year ago, the park commission began considering revisions to the site to incorporate new ideas. As a first step, the county released a request for qualifications from landscape architects and engineering firms. After reviewing applications and interviews from 13 submissions, the county chose Simone Collins Landscape Architecture, a “somewhat local firm that has deep experience in park planning projects like this one,” commissioner Anthony Cucchi said.
The county also hired Princeton Hydro, an environmental solutions firm that will be studying the park by analyzing storm weather-readiness, water quality, and factors related to the lake, to identify opportunities for restoration. The firm will also be delineating wetlands to determine where trails are feasible and conducting a topographical survey to understand where specific amenities should be placed.
“The park commission and county are excited to partake in a planning process to revise the site and consider other ways that it can be utilized beyond flood control,” Cucchi said.
One concern in building this park has been the property of residents living adjacent to Dam Site 21. Since this land has been informally used by nearby residents for decades, the formalization and renovation process may cause changes for those that live closeby. Specifically, the county and contracted firms will be conducting a boundary survey to determine where Dam Site 21 ends and private property begins.
While Cucchi highlighted the benefits of having a park being built nearby, he acknowledged this concern.
“The neighborhood should have a voice in the process,” he said. “We see this as a wonderful opportunity, not only for the Mercer County greater area, but the particular residents nearby.”
Toward this goal, the park commission is pursuing four avenues in search of community input. One is advisory committees, consisting of representatives from municipalities and institutional landowners like Mercer County Community College, which will be asked to weigh in on how park renovations could affect nearby communities.
The second is focus group interviews, one of which was held on Feb. 19 at the Boathouse at Mercer Lake. Residents and community organizations are invited to provide their input on the renovations. The commission also intends to hold one-on-one interviews with experts and professionals on matters relating to the site, as well as public meetings. The first one is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. March 7 at the conference center at Mercer County Community College. Also, until Oct. 1, residents can voice their opinions of the project on an online survey.
These varying levels of input will be collected and compared with the studies done by the contracted firms to decide what measures are feasible, and how the park can provide different amenities than the nearby Mercer County Park. This input process is part of the larger master plan phase, which will be presented to the park commissioners in October for feedback and approval.
Actual construction on the park is not likely until after 2019, but Cucchi emphasized the importance of having a longer but more transparent process. “In the long-run, we’ll come up with a much better product if we seek that civic engagement and public input,” he said. “As far as excitement, we’re excited to hear the ideas and thoughts that people have.”