By CAROL COMEGNO
Camden County and USS New Jersey museum officials oppose a ferry pier the Delaware River Port Authority wants to build in front of the historic battleship.
The county board of freeholders and the Home Port Alliance have raised aesthetic and safety concerns about the proposed Camden Waterfront pier. They want the plan dropped.
Freeholder Laurelle Cummings said her board wants the DRPA to consider alternative sites for the ferry stop because the current plan would block the view of the battleship's bow. The 887-foot-long ship -- the most decorated battleship in the U.S. Navy, with 19 campaign stars -- opened as a floating museum in October after a $6 million face-lift.
The DRPA wants to build the pier to better accommodate passengers who use its ferry to travel between Camden and Philadelphia. A spokesman said the agency will work with critics to iron out their concerns.
Cummings said the DRPA has violated its $3.8 million lease agreement with the county for riparian rights to build the project. The lease requires county approval of the pier's design and construction and the DRPA solicited bids without obtaining freeholders' OK, Cummings said. The DRPA is due to receive bids Thursday.
"They (DRPA members) have just barreled ahead without that approval. We think at this point they should consider other sites," Cummings said.
The plan also troubles Camden County Surrogate Patricia Jones and state Sen. John Matheussen, co-chairmen of the nonprofit Home Port Alliance, which runs the battleship museum and memorial.
Jones said the pier would obstruct the Camden view of the USS New Jersey from its northern side, including the ship's white bow number -- 62. The pier would be too close to its neighbors, sandwiched between the ship and the entrance to Wiggins Park Marina, she said.
"This is very disturbing to me. We were never even shown any drawings or plans until February," Jones said.
"We spent millions of dollars to position the ship and create this view. This will block the best view of the ship from Wiggins Park," she said. In a March 6 letter, Jones advised the DRPA to explore other ferry locations.
Matheussen, R-Gloucester, said he believes an impending change in New Jersey leadership on the DRPA may resolve the issue. "With our concern and the input of Camden County Freeholder-Director Jeff Nash, who will be seated shortly as vice chair of the DRPA, this will be resolved," Matheussen. The Senate could vote this week on Nash's appointment to the DRPA.
The proposed pier and ship moorings would stretch more than 200 feet into the river.
Joseph Balzano, acting operating officer for the battleship, said the proximity of the ferry moorings to underwater anchor plates holding the unpowered New Jersey in place is a definite concern.
Plans show the closest of proposed moorings for two 100-foot-long ferries is about 75 feet from one of the battleship's mooring plates. The river has a swift current that can make docking any vessel a challenge.
The new ferry pier and slips also would require dozens of pilings to be driven into the river bottom, creating vibrations that could affect the surrounding environment and shad fish that swim upriver to spawn.
For that reason, DRPA spokesman Joe Diemer said, no piles can be driven until June.
The Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing a DRPA request for a construction permit, as is the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has yet to issue a waterfront development permit for the ferry pier.
Diemer said his agency, which also has a seat on the Home Port Alliance, is willing to work with freeholders and the alliance to resolve the issue.
"We were extremely active in helping finance the battleship's pier and initial operating budget and gave more money than anybody except the state," Diemer said. "We don't think this plan will detract from the ship.
He said the DRPA already had reduced the proposed height of a canopy over the ferry pier from 35 to 24 feet, at the request of the county. The agency thought the matter was settled, he said.
Cummings said even a 24-foot canopy is unacceptable because it would obscure the battleship's bow, as would a pier without any awning.
The DRPA seeks the new pier because it wants to move its ferry operation closer to the Tweeter Center, which generates 30 percent of the ridership, as well as to the ship.
The plan is to eventually abandon a ferry pier now outside the New Jersey State Aquarium, just upriver from the marina, and to build two others.
In addition to the pier pro posed at the southern end of the waterfront near the ship and Tweeter Center, another would be built north of the aquarium near the site of an aerial tram now under construction.
Diemer said the DRPA plans to spend $3.6 million to construct the first ferry pier. The existing ferry handles 300,000 passengers a year and costs $1.2 million to operate, but does not make a profit.
Tom Corcoran, an alliance member and president of Cooper's Ferry Development Association, said there needs to be another meeting between all the parties to discuss possible alternate sites.
In addition to projected pier construction costs, the DRPA has spent $750,000 to buy a vehicular ferry in New England. It plans to spend an additional $1.8 million, with some federal funding, to refurbish it as a passenger ferry.
Diemer said the new design is nostalgic and will resemble old-fashioned Pennsylvania Railroad passenger ferries that operated long before the bridges between Philadelphia and Camden were built.