PARSIPPANY — While most of us living in Parsippany today have visited one or more of the 31 parks maintained by the Township Parks and Forestry Department, very few of us appreciate, or know the history of when these parks were built and how this department was formed.
Fortunately, Mr. Joe Jannarone Sr. (referred to in this article as JJ) is the man that does know, and he has shared the following stories with me, that capture much of this history.
Prior to 1972, the Township of Parsippany did not have a Parks and Forestry Department. JJ, recalls the events and reasons for this department to be formed, how it grew, and the role it has played in helping make Parsippany one of the “best places to live in the country,” according to Money Magazine
In late 1960 the Township of Parsippany had depended on the “shade tree committee” to write the ordinances defining the procedures that property developers needed to follow in order to be issued permits for the removal and replacement of trees. It also stipulated that the work done, needed to be inspected to ensure they were in compliance before they could receive C O O.
The ordinance also defined the types of trees that would and would NOT be permitted to be planted on Township property. Unfortunately, the Commission did not have the authority, nor resources needed to enforce this ordinance, so in 1972, Mayor Henry Luther created the position of Township Forrester, who would be responsible for enforcing the
ordinance. JJ was a member of the shade tree committee so the mayor offered him this position. JJ did not want to disappoint his current employer, so he did not immediately accept the offer, after some discussions with his wife Nicki, they agreed that it would be best for his family to have a job that offered retirement and health care benefits.
Shortly after becoming the first Township Forester in 1972, the “shade tree ordinance” was challenged, by a developer that sued the Township and JJ, because they refused to return his deposit because he planted Silver Maples which were one of the “not allowed” species. The developer’s attorney grilled JJ for two days in court, asking the same questions, in different ways, trying to trap JJ, this (did not work) so the judge finally dismissed the case, and the ordinance remains in force today.
After the ordinance was upheld, JJ proposed that a “tree survey” should be done, in order to identify and assess the viability of all the trees on township property. JJ was able to get a Rutgers University student, majoring in Forestry Management, that had been hired by the Recreation Department as a summer intern to help him complete this project. The survey reviled that there were over 600 dead trees and that the township might be liable if any of them fell down causing damage to property or personnel injury, and should therefore be cut down as soon as possible. During the next year’s budget process, JJ proposed adding a new employee to do tree trimming and removal in the township, and operate the bucket truck that was being sold by a tree trimming company in PA, which would cost only $5,000. Once the purchase was approved, JJ went to Pa. so he could personally drive the truck back to Parsippany. This truck was used by the Township for 12 years and then given to the Township of Boonton, what a great investment.
In 1960 the Bradford Callery Pear tree was recommended by the Shade Tree Committee and planted throughout the Sedgfiefld Development. These trees had attracted so many visitors to view their beautiful white blossoms every spring and grew so well, that the Forestry Department planted them in a number of additional areas of the Township. Unfortunately, even though very beautiful and fast-growing, it was discovered after about 20 years that the Bradford species, was the only Callery Pear that had a self-destructive “fatal flaw” because the branch crouches grew too close together. Sadly, today, there are few if any of the Bradford Callery Pear trees that have survived, but many other Callery Pear species have survived.
The National Arbor Society had a program where they distributed tree seedlings to communities around the country. In 1972, as the Township Forrester, JJ established a program where Township distributed seedlings to EVERY third-grade student in Parsippany. He contacted some tree growers and nursery suppliers and learned different types of evergreen/pine trees would be the most reliable, easiest for planting, and least expensive. JJ ordered seedlings from a grower in southern NJ, got plastic bags donated, plus going around and picked up discarded telephone wires from construction sites to tie the bags, and asked some local food stores if they could save some boxes He then had some Cub Scouts and their parents, volunteer to put soil, water, and the seedlings in the bags and then packed them standing up into the boxes, that were then delivered on Arbor Day to ALL the elementary schools in Parsippany. This program is still going on today and is credited with getting over 150,000 trees planted in Parsippany.
During 1974 JJ noticed that a number of Township owned properties around town needed some manicuring, so JJ borrowed an older tractor from the Recreation Department and a lawnmower from the Board of Education, which he used on weekends to keep Township properties mowed and manicured.
In 1986 the Forestry and Parks and Recreation Departments were merged and JJ was appointed as the Director of this new department. A few weeks after the departments were merged, JJ recognized that while the parks were being well maintained, most of them did not have adequate playground equipment and were very underutilized by families and kids. To address this issue, merry-go-rounds, slides, swing sets, and bouncy spring animals were purchased and installed in some of the parks, and JJ was very pleased to see a dramatic increase in the number of children and families using the parks.
It was not long after that a woman came into JJ’s office with one of her children who had some disabilities, she asked where she could find a park or recreation areas that were handicap accessible and had playground equipment that they could use? When JJ contacted the companies that manufactured playground equipment, he was shocked to learn that NONE of them made any such equipment. JJ then contacted a medical supply company and discovered that they made a swing that a wheelchair could be put on as well as a bouncy spring animal that had backrests and harness. These two items and picnic tables that are wheelchair assessable were ordered by JJ. Special soft materials were placed on the ground at Knoll Park, and the equipment was installed, making it the first handicap assessable park in the state. The Star-Ledger ran a story about the park, which was picked up by the Associated Press, sparking interest in this issue and bringing national attention for Parsippany. Shortly after this, a gentleman from Bergen County came to see the park and asked JJ if he could help him design a similar park, that he was willing to fund it , and would be the first such facility in that county. JJ also received numerous calls from officials of both large and small cities around the country, it appears that Parsippany and JJ can be credited with starting this wonderful and much-needed initiative.
Another story JJ likes to tell is how the “Victory Garden” came to be. One day a lady called JJ and asked him if there was any place in one of the parks, where she could grow some crops. Unfortunately, this could not be done, but as fate would have it, the Township had just bought some property on Route 202 where they planned to have the Engineering department housed, and yes it had some garden area. JJ was able to expand this area by attaching his personal plow to a Township tractor and then tilling the soil. Paths were made to divide the area into separate plots so people could get to their plots without walking on other people’s. Street signs were made and installed, so residents could locate the plot they had been awarded. When it came time to dedicate the gardens, JJ proposed that they be called the “Victory Gardens”, which was a common name given to community gardens built during World War 2.
Another story JJ likes to tell is how they were able to get flag poles illuminated at Smith Field. JJ observed that the American flag was not being flown on a regular basis and when he asked why this was the case he was told because they were not able to be illuminated, so they had to be taken down every evening and it was too time-consuming to put them up every morning and take them down every evening. JJ negotiated with the electric company to install a new 220-volt electric box, so lights could be installed, that would shine on the flags and therefore could be displayed day and night.
As the Parks and Forestry Department grew, most of their equipment and supplies were stored at Smith Field, and offices for the staff were housed in a converted trailer on Baldwin Road. It was apparent that a facility was needed, where all the departments’ staff and equipment could be housed. JJ determined that the ideal location for such a structure was on the property next to the Knoll Park which was included as part of the Knoll Country Club, purchased by the Township. Unfortunately, this property had been purchased with funds from the State’s Green Acres Fund, which restricted any NEW structures being built. JJ pointed out to the State officials, that equipment and materials are required to maintain all of the parklands in Parsippany, and without a proper storage and maintenance facility, they might not be able to keep them in good condition. After getting approval to build a structure on this site from the State, JJ asked the Township Architect to design a building with offices for Management, a common area for staff, and another large area for equipment storage and maintenance. The Parks and Forestry Building located at 1 Knoll Road Lake Hiawatha was opened in 1990 and is still in use today. The Department manages and maintains a total of 31 Township parks, with the goal of having recreation within walking distance for all Parsippany residents. These parks encompass over 800 acres of land, which far surpasses the nationally accepted standard of one acre of parks for every 100 residents JJ is proud of the fact that 18 of these 31 parks were built and /or improved during the time he was the Director of Parks and Forestry Department. He is particularly proud that the newest park is named in his honor and that Parsippany hosts the largest soccer tournament in the N. E., thanks mainly because there are so many artificial turf fields, which were built under his leadership. While there is a story behind each park project and they all presented some challenges, it is great to see the look of joy on JJ’s face when he talks about the Reynolds Road soccer fields, construction of the bandstand (gazebo), and Memorial at Veterans Field, and Jannarone Park.
JJ is very modest and has always given credit for his accomplishments to the support he received from Township Mayors, Council Representative, Township Administrators, and members of his staff. He is quick to point out that he was fortunate to live in a community that had the resources to provide residents with such outstanding services and facilities. JJ also says that he was so blessed to have the job he had, when he had it, as he never had any budget or request for materials he made denied. I believe that it is the residents of Parsippany that are the fortunate ones to have had a Director of Parks and Forestry that saw things that needed to be done, and only did what he felt was best for us.
Reprinted from Parsippany Focus Magazine, April 2022. Click here to view the magazine.