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Request For Open Space Referendum on Hold for Now

Township Committee members ask for further reports on what money would be used for, and how fund has been spent so far.

Request For Open Space Referendum on Hold for Now

A request from the township's Recreation, Parks & Pathways Advisory Committee that residents be asked to vote this November on whether to extend the open space tax beyond its expiration of 2017 at half of its current rate of four cents has been placed on hold pending further study.

The Bernards Township Committee unanimously agreed at Tuesday's meeting to first seek a report on how the fund, approved in 1997, has so far been spent on acquiring open space or preserving farmland, and how it might be intended for use in the future.

So far, open space purchases in the township have included the Sons of Liberty Park, Whitenack Woods, Mountain Park, the preservation of the English farm and more.

Now, "There are a number of properties around that would advantageous to acquire if they become available," said resident Richard Huckins, who said he chaired the local open space advisory committee at the time it was disbanded in 2008.

But Township Committeeman John Malay, who said he worked to place the open space tax on the ballot in 1997, said he intended that the tax would be finite. "This was not going to be one of these things that would become a piggy bank," he said.

Voters approved the township's open space tax at a rate of two cents per $100 of assessed property value in 1997, and then later agreed to double it to four cents in 2003, according to Township Administrator Bruce McArthur.

Deputy Mayor John Carpenter, who called for further details on the proposal, later noted that if it would be earmarked for installing an artificial turf field in the township — a suggestion made by some supporters at the meeting — then the request should be for that purpose, rather than asking for further open space funds.

"For the past several years, the Recreation, Parks & Pathways Advisory Committee has discussed the options for improving athletic field conditions and scheduling options while also increasing revenue," said advisory committee's recommendation for a voter referendum on a two-cent open space tax that would be in place from 2018 through 2027. "The addition of an artificial turf field to our facilities inventory could support the accomplishment of this goal," the letter to the township committee said.

Carpenter, Malay and Township Committeeman Scott Spitzer suggested that perhaps such a turf field might be financed through the township's capital improvements account in the regular municipal budget if it might be built.

In 2012, the current open space tax brought in just over $2.5 million for the year, but much of that was used to pay down debt for open space purchases, according to McArthur. With much of the funding already spoken for, McArthur said he believed that the the fund likely would wind up with a balance of between $600,000 to $750,000 if it is allowed to expire in 2017.

McArthur pointed out that another aspect of the open space fund would be as a source to tap for the township's agricultural advisory committee, which might suggest further farmland preservation.

And Huckins said the purchase of open space could be a way to reduce potential development.

Those who spoke in favor of using at least part of open space funds for a turf field also said that recreation would contribute to the township's healthy, family-oriented activities.

Jeff Bosland, who said he formerly was on the recreation committee and now has daughters in athletics, said the open space program would be beneficial whether used for open space or initiatives such as a turf field.

Bosland and others also said that the cost of a turf field could eventually be paid by through user fees.

"There is broad-based support," he said of the proposal for funding.

Natalie Kirkwood also told the committee that fees could repay the cost of a turf field, but athletic organizations can't come up with the money up-front to build it.

At the last meeting, the Ridge Baseball Club asked for permission to install turf infields at the baseball complex off Valley Road.

But when the proposal came up for a vote for permission from the Township Committee — since the township owns the land and leases it to the baseball club — Carpenter proposed that it first be placed before a township subcommittee made up of neighbors, members of the Baseball Club and the Township Committee.

Mayor Carolyn Gaziano later said that officials have received complaints about parking overflow and other issues at the field complex, and want those issues resolved first.

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