About five and a half years ago, Russ Felter said, he was approached by state legislators about becoming chairman of the Lake Hopatcong Commission. “I respectfully declined,” he said, “But told them, ‘have I got a guy for you.’”
On Monday, that guy—Art Ondish—led his last meeting as chairman of the Lake Hopatcong Commission, and turned the leadership post over to Felter. Ondish joked that Felter should receive a mix of congratulations and condolences, and ultimately said the evening was “bittersweet.”
“I hope that we’ve done some good,” he said during his final chairman’s report. “I certainly will be here to help you and work with you in any way I can, looking out for the lake, which is our ultimate goal. The one regret I have is the fact that I wish I could have spent more time doing positive things instead of constantly looking for money…I can’t tell you the number of hours and days I spent traveling to Trenton, constantly looking under every rock. Unfortunately, it just didn’t turn out to be a solid situation.”
Although the brunt of discussion about the change of leadership was within that chairman’s report and during a final discussion in which the commissioners paid tribute to Ondish’s years as chairman, the topic wove its way through much of the discussion during the monthly meeting, which was held at the Roxbury Municipal Building in Ledgewood.
At one point, for example, Ondish referred to correspondence from the state Boating Regulation Commission, which denied the Lake Hopatcong Commission’s request, which was supported by state police troopers, to require better markings on bait traps so boaters can more easily see them. “I just think it was a shame that they overlooked this,” Ondish said. “I hope you continue to pursue this in the future.”
In a discussion about the Lake Hopatcong Water Level Advisory Committee, which is mostly made up of local stakeholders and has been meeting monthly with Trenton officials, commissioner Daniel McCarthy of Hopatcong said the group was making progress, and that the plan wouldn’t change much—most likely continuing with its pattern of a 26-inch annual drawdown and a 60-inch drawdown every five years. The focus, McCarthy said, is enforcement. “What we really hope is that they stick to the plan,” he said, adding that it’s also important to make sure knowledge about the dam and the management plan is properly shared so that any changes in staff wouldn’t result in mistakes.
Ondish, who has been part of the committee, said he would make sure Felter was up to speed on the discussion.
The Water Level Advisory Committee has been a standing item on the agenda for several months, and after Monday’s meeting, two more items are expected to be a regular part of the docket. Felter said he would like there to be five minutes allocated to updates from the Lake Hopatcong Alliance each month, so that the commission can be aware of what the nonprofit group is doing and be sure there is no duplication of efforts between the two groups. And administrator Donna Macalle-Holly asked that the status of the water chestnut search—a lake-wide effort to identify and eliminate any of the invasive species—be a regular agenda item during the spring and summer months.
Macalle-Holly also gave a recap of the Water Scout search in early June, during which dozens of volunteers paddled the lake to seek any sign of the water chestnut, which was only found in Landing Channel. “I’d like to acknowledge the work of the Knee Deep Club, especially Tim Clancy,” she said. “It was because of his dedication that we got a great response…and it really was a great effort.”
Fred Lubnow of Princeton Hydro, which conducts water-quality projects on the lake through grants obtained by the commission, gave a recap of some of the grant projects recently completed and those in the works. Because of joint efforts on two of those undertakings—in which Jefferson Township and Mt. Arlington Borough took on more of the cost than expected—the commission has an additional $70,000 to spend with one of its Environmental Protection Agency grants. Lubnow said the group is looking into implementing additional small-scale projects, including installing what is known as a Filterra system near Lake Forest Yacht Club, which would use plants to treat and filter stormwater, and installing floating wetland islands that are a matrix of plant material and recycled plastic, which sop up nutrients from the water. “The maintenance [on these projects] is relatively low, and they use biological processes,” he said.
“We’re looking to do more of these smaller projects instead of big ones that take a long time,” said Macalle-Holly. She also took a moment to thank Al Riha of Hopatcong, who volunteered to help her conduct stormwater sampling. “It’s not easy work,” she said.
With regard to the weed harvest, which is supposed to take place this summer thanks to grants from the state departments of transportation and environmental protection, Macalle-Holly said she recently received word that it could take four to six weeks for the state to review the memorandum of agreement and begin reimbursing expenses. Felter said he spoke with people in state Sen. Anthony R. Bucco’s office, who said they would get things resolved this week. “Four to six weeks is ridiculous,” he said. “[Bucco and Oroho] are going to bat for us, and hopefully they’re successful.”
The need for the weed harvest was evident early in the meeting, when two Woodport residents spoke about the stagnant weeds that are choking their waterfronts. “I live in the middle of a cesspool,” said Russell Fischer of Lake Hopatcong. “It’s a health hazard, and it’s beginning to smell bad.”
Charles Morel echoed that sentiment. “Sitting on my deck looking out, what I see is almost continuous weeds to the surface, with slimy green stuff on top,” he said. “This is the first time in 15 years that I’m not using the lake…I’m a lakefront owner, I pay taxes, and I’m not getting the joy of the lake.”
Ondish said the commission would be sure to keep that in mind when planning the weed-harvest effort, and Felter said he would have Jefferson Township look into the problem as well.
To help fund such efforts by the commission, Justin McCarthy of Durban Avenue Elementary School (and son of commissioner Daniel McCarthy) presented a check of about $230 that he raised from his fellow students to support the commission. “I want to continue next year, too,” he said.
Ondish praised McCarthy as a “true advocate for Lake Hopatcong.” “It’s very important to get young people understanding what it’s all about,” he said.
The meeting ended with a tribute to Ondish from his fellow commissioners, who one by one shared their parting thoughts for the outgoing chairman.
“I know you care about the lake and will look out for us going forward,” McCarthy said. Kerry Kirk Pflugh, the DEP’s representative on the board, thanked Ondish for his guidance when she first joined the commission last year. David Jarvis said that, although he and Ondish didn’t always agree on everything, he appreciated the chairman’s respect and knowledge of the lake. Elizabeth Gantert told Ondish that he had done a good job, and worked very hard on behalf of the lake. Betty Lou DeCroce, who just joined the commission as its N.J. Department of Community Affairs representative last month, said she was disappointed that she wouldn’t be working with Ondish, but that she was “very aware of your dedicated work.” Ed McCarthy said he appreciated Ondish’s work despite the struggles to fund the commission. “Very few people could have kept it together this well,” he said. Mike Brunson said the commission would miss Ondish—“I wish you the best of luck, and hope you stay around,” he said—and added his wishes of good luck to Felter, who on Monday was named interim chairman until the state confirms his appointment.
Lubnow chimed in with his praise. “Your leadership has been unparalleled,” he said.
Joel Servoss, who joked that he was ready for the cake that was about to be served, said he’d make his comments brief. “Thank you heartily for your years of hard work,” he said.
Ondish said he’d enjoy spending every third Monday of the month out on the lake, but would miss his time on the commission, nonetheless. He thanked the staff profusely, saying their dedication made them jewels of the lake. “It’s definitely been a good learning experience, and a great pleasure getting to know all of you,” he said. “I hope that I will continue to be an advocate for the lake as mayor, and I’ll be supportive of you whenever I can.