May 3, 2015
By Nicole Mulvaney
WEST WINDSOR — Pop band R5 wasn’t invited to the backyard wedding Judy Goetz planned in West Windsor for her niece, but the teen sensations seem to have crashed the party.
Goetz lives in the shadow of Mercer County Park’s Festival Grounds with its newly renovated concert stage. So she checked to make sure the 4:30 p.m. wedding ceremony on July 18 wouldn’t conflict with any special events at the park, which can draw thousands.
“It’s a beautiful backyard with trees in the back, so it makes for a nice setting,” said Goetz, who lives there with Jeff Hamer. “My niece knew that’s where she wanted to get married.”
The county’s park commission told her in January no concerts were planned at the park’s Festival Grounds that night, she said. Goetz sent out 90 invitations in April.
But she later discovered R5 is now scheduled to perform at 7 p.m. that night. With the doors opening at 6 p.m., bustling concert traffic would have interrupted the private exchange of wedding vows, Goetz said.
She moved the ceremony to The Cranbury Inn and mailed new invitations for her niece, who lives in Texas.
“I was hysterical,” she said. “It was very embarrassing to call our family and reschedule.”
Goetz is among many South Post Road residents unhappy that the neighboring park is being used to host heavily-attended concerts and special events, such as the Ironman 70.3 Princeton triathlon last year, the Food Truck Fiesta last month and the upcoming Barenaked Ladies concert on July 2.
The R5 show on July 18 could draw between 3,000 and 5,000 attendees, according to park officials.
“It was a real coo for us to get them on a Saturday,” said Kevin Bannon, executive director of the park commission. “They’re very popular for young people in the area, and the tickets are already selling like hotcakes. People are very, very excited about it.”
Years ago, residents contend they were told large-scale concerts and events would not take place at Mercer County’s Festival Grounds. But the venue is now hosting more larger scale events.
“I get it. They’re running a park, and they say that they’re bringing the residents of Mercer more activity and joy,” Goetz said. “But this is a wedding.”
Bannon said one of his staff members made a “human error” in failing to jot Goetz’s niece’s wedding on their master calendar as a personal courtesy.
“We feel really bad about that,” Bannon said. “We apologized to her, but I don’t know what else we can do.”
The Mercer County Freeholders suggested the commission reimburse Goetz for wedding-related expenses, such as the cost of the invitations and landscaping she had done for the occasion.
“We would like to see that happen,” Freeholder Chair Samuel Frisby said this week. “This was unfortunately a lack of communication, or at least a lack of good communication. Even if we’re not able to fix anything for her event, we want to make sure we are being good neighbors to the people that are there.”
Bannon said the commission encouraged Goetz to fill out paperwork with the county for possible reimbursement of the invitations.
“There’s a big picture to realize, too. We serve the entire region,” Bannon said. “We try to be good neighbors, but sometimes you’re just not going to agree. We do the best that we can.”
The freeholder board suggested that in the future, if South Post Road residents are hosting a big event and receive clearance from the commission on park activities, it must honor their request and not schedule an activity at the Festival Grounds.
“If somebody checks with us and we tell them there’s not an event, we want to be mindful and mark that off on the calendar,” Frisby said. “I couldn’t imagine planning my wedding and then having to move it because I know it’s going to be interfered with by a concert and I already talked to somebody.”
Bannon said the park cannot hold dates open for residents.
“We’re not going to schedule everything around neighbors’ social schedules,” Bannon said.
“It is what it is, I guess. I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere,” Goetz said. “We’ll just have to make the best of it.”
THE NEW STAGE
The park hosted events for the past decade on a portable stage transported from event to event. The park recently built a new 2,200-square-foot stage designed to support the 200,000-square-foot grass amphitheater.
The revamped venue can now hold as many as 10,000 people for a concert, though there are no shows planned expected to hit that capacity, Bannon said. The park has parking for 7,000 cars.
“We don’t want it to be a situation where it’s too crowded, and we’re not trying to become a destination where we’re trying to have a concert a week,” Bannon said.
Bannon said the former portable stage was closer to park neighbors, and the county designed it with noise concerns in mind.
“It’s as far away as you could possibly get it,” Bannon said of the permanent stage.
“No matter what we do, we’re not going to make everybody happy.”
The permanent stage is located about a third of a mile away from South Post Road, but residents say it’s five times larger than the previous one.
Residents offered “workable solutions” and alternatives to building the stage directly facing their homes, South Post Road resident Teresa Lourenco said. But now, loud noise projects from the park each time an event takes place, and trash often blows across their lawns.
“Once in a while — OK, but this isn’t once in a while,” Goetz said. “Now that they’re having major concerts, the sound is blasting right at our house and yes, you can hear it.”
Residents were notified there would be less than five events annually with music after 9 p.m. and that programming would not significantly increase to accommodate large-scale shows.
Bannon said events are ongoing from April to October annually, and about four upcoming big shows, including the R5 concert, don’t break his promise.
“I think I’ve kept my word,” Bannon said. “These performers are very family-oriented. Our residents are thrilled that we’re having these.”
Frisby said protocols for the Festival Grounds still need to be worked out.
“This is new for everybody, so we need to get a process in place and make sure their property lines are being respected and the park is not being overrun by visitors,” Frisby said.
The problems don’t end with the stage. Stadium lights in the stage area and other parts of the park also face residents’ homes. The public address system is also noisy during events, residents said.
“There’s ways that the impacts can be mitigated,” West Windsor Council President Bryan Maher said. He suggested adding tree buffers on both sides of the road and starting late-night events, including firework shows and concert performances, earlier.
In addition to the park, South Post Road residents are also flanked by the 45-acre field of solar panels at Mercer County Community College.
“I feel bad for these people. They’ve really gotten a bum deal,” Maher said. “We’ve done what we can to voice our concerns.”
Maher said despite council advocating for the residents, county officials have forged ahead with plans that carry negative consequences.
“We’ve tried to bend over backwards and be accommodating,” said Bannon, noting the park is not exceeding sound and firework ordinances and has granted a number of concessions to make residents happy.
Residents also say there needs to be increased police patrols to monitor speeding and heavy traffic on the roadway, particularly during events and on weekends. Bannon said a park ranger is stationed on the road during events to ease the traffic flow and monitor parking.