Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 22
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
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A Boardwalk Miles From the Shore Opens Princeton Lands to Walkers

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Township in the last year achieved its goal of becoming 25 percent preserved — an assured triumph for conservationists and outdoors people throughout the region. But a recent grant given to the Friends of Princeton Open Space has all but guaranteed that those preserved lands are now better linked and more accessible for those curious to see where their open space taxes go.

That link is a 960-foot boardwalk over a stretch of wetlands, not only joining Princeton parks but offering a window into what the outreaches of Princeton once looked like when farms and fields ruled the day.

The boardwalk, which was officially completed with a grand opening May 20, provides what Township officials are calling a crucial bridge between two major outdoor attractions, as well points beyond. Part of the newly-dubbed J. Seward Johnson Sr. Trail that runs from the Mountain Lakes Preserve across the southern end of Coventry Farm to the Great Road bike path and the athletic fields at Farmview Fields Park, the boardwalk not only allows visitors some majestic views of the Coventry Farm, but, according to Township arborist and open space manager Greg O'Neil, makes much of Princeton Township available to cyclists and hikers while limiting contact with major roadways. Another new pathway connection between Ettl Farm and Province Line Road means that "you can actually now go from one side of town to the other using the bike path and trail systems," Mr. O'Neil said.

Partial funding for the boardwalk came from a $30,000 grant from the J. Seward Johnson Sr. Charitable Trust, with the remaining $50,000 coming out of funds appropriated through the Township's capital improvement project. The relatively simple but labor-intensive project, Mr. O'Neil said, essentially screws one-inch by one-inch steel shanks into the ground, with an L-bracket and header piece for support, and topped off with the visible deck. The pro-ject was carried out in-house, with the Township's Public Works Department handling the brunt of the workload.

The project had been in the pipeline for several years, Mr. O'Neil said, but funding was not available, ostensibly leaving a missing link in the bike and walking path system.

"When we purchased the property, I walked through that area where a trail was supposed to go, and suddenly, I was standing in three feet of water," Mr. O'Neil said in an interview. "Right then and there I knew that we couldn't make a trail there."

Mr. O'Neil's office used helical piers, which have significant load-bearing capacity and are also used in fixing sinking foundations, to support the boardwalk. "It's something that's not particularly common in this case, but you are starting to see other communities doing projects like this." The Township then acquired a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection permit. The result, Mr. O'Neil added, is a "really tremendous project."

Friends of Princeton Open Space naturalist Stephen Hiltner said the area is ripe for native plant species and that he would attempt to carry out a plan similar to that of the wildflowers revival he oversaw along the Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath.

"I'm looking at the boardwalk as a great place to show off some of the native wildflowers like we have on the towpath — but to get these growing here would be perfect," Mr. Hiltner said, pointing to the elevated positioning of the boardwalk. Elkweed, hibiscus, and other wildflowers from locally collected seeds are just a few examples of what is possible.

"We really have perfect conditions there," Mr. Hiltner said, but warned that a native invasive species, reed canary grass — a tall, coarse-looking perennial grass — could pose some problems without proper treatment. "It dominates some areas, and I'm hoping to get that out of there so we can create conditions for diversity," he said.

Both Mr. Hiltner and Mr. O'Neil expressed excitement over the boardwalk that effectively connects Mountain Lakes Witherspoon Woods, Community Park North and South, and Farmview Fields. "All I can say now is that what we have here is pretty special," Mr. O'Neil said.

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