Sign petition for tax relief

Petitioning governor, legislators for Highlands Act relief

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WEST MILFORD — The township is appealing to all residents to sign a petition online telling Gov. Chris Christie and state legislators that West Milford needs equity under the mandated Highlands Act.

"I'm hoping with more voices, the governor and legislators will hear it. Unless they hear from hundreds and hundreds and thousands, it falls on deaf ears."
Councilwoman Michele Dale

The petition demands that the governor and legislature do three things:

Provide equity for the stewards of the watershed lands in the form of funding for lost revenues

Amend the Highlands Act to provide equity when properties are lost due to transfer of development rights

Provide exemptions for towns when trying to develop land to benefit the public for recreation, education and the general good.

Stewards of the land
West Milford is losing approximately $5 million in tax revenue, according to the letter written by the township attorney Fred Semrau, because the township is totally within the Highlands Preservation area. The legislation was enacted a decade ago as a tool to protect the watershed lands that provide drinking water to nearly 50 percent of New Jersey residents. The watershed land is owned by the Newark Watershed Corporation, which has continually appealed its assessments and won. Virtually no development, commercial or residential, can be done throughout the township and parts of many other towns here in the Highlands. And that is seriously affecting the financial health of West Milford.

Lobbying for relief

“When Christie was here, he promised he'd look into Highlands relief,” said Councilwoman Michele Dale, who requested the letter be written and be made available for residents to send to state representatives themselves.

Christie made a stop here in West Milford in October of 2012. During his talk to about 700 residents at the PAL Building, the governor said he was working to change the Highlands legislation, noting that the towns in the designated areas are supposed to be rightly compensated for the land. He said he couldn’t change the law but would work instead on implementing it properly from the executive branch and come up with a funding mechanism to compensate municipalities.

“I’m working on it,” he said. “I’m trying to work through the executive branch so we can do some of what was intended.”

So far, nothing has changed. Just prior to Christie's visit, the township hired Princeton Public Affairs Group, a lobbying firm to which the township and five other municipalities pay a total of $4,000 each month to work to push legislation that will assess the land as revenue generating.

Sign the petition, send a letter

Dale said she knows people don’t necessarily write their own letters. That’s why she requested the letter be made available to the public. All of her colleagues on the council have supported this.

“This petition is tremendously important to help bring tax relief to West Milford Township and financial equity to the Highlands communities,” said Mayor Bettina Bieri. “I am urging all residents of West Milford to read and sign the petition as soon as possible. While we can all appreciate the importance of the Highlands Act and its goal of protecting and preserving the water supply for about 50 percent of New Jersey residents, it is both unreasonable and unjust to expect the host watershed communities to bear the financial burden associated with those protections. We are petitioning our governor and our legislators to take action, but they need to hear from us loudly and clearly, in a vast agglomeration.”

The letter is available on the township website, Or residents can just go on the website and read and sign the petition. There is a red scroll at the top of the page urging residents to sign. To do so, click on the blue “sign petition” button on the right side of the township home page.

For those who would like to sign the petition but do not have access to a computer, the library has computers available to the public. Or they can come to town hall and pick up a copy of the letter in the administrator’s office and send it themselves. The petition will be available online until Oct. 31.

“I’m hoping with more voices, the governor and legislators will hear it,” said Dale. “Unless they hear from hundreds and hundreds and thousands, it falls on deaf ears.”

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