Keeping open space fund intact benefits town, taxpayers

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To the Editor:

As a West Milford taxpayer, I read with interest the article and subsequent letter by Paul Zarillo regarding the recent open space purchase of the 170-acre West Brook Preserve. Having walked the property, the beauty and environmental significance of West Brook – with deep forests, rocky viewpoints and primitive paths – is undeniable.

It also serves as a primary source to the Wanaque Reservoir, supplying drinking water to 2 million people.

Environmental CommissionAs a volunteer of the WM Environmental Commission (EC), my colleagues and I are sometimes asked to consider and recommend land parcels for preservation, based on their recreational, historic and environmental value.

We are all WM taxpayers, so we view open space from the perspective of how it directly benefits the town and our fellow taxpayers.

To avoid negatively impacting West Milford’s tax base, we only consider properties paying little or no property taxes. The land must also provide significant value to residents, such as a place for playing fields or multi-use recreation likely to attract visitors.

We may also consider land if it protects taxpayers’ well water, creates a strategic access way or connects two properties used by the residents.

The bottom lineAlthough West Milford did not contribute any open space funds to this West Brook Preserve purchase, like Mr. Zarrillo, my main concern with the property was how it will affect our taxes.

I’m no accountant, but I did some quick math and came up these results:

West Milford’s total annual budget of about $108,000,000 is currently spread out among 11,642 taxpayers, according to the West Milford tax collector’s office. Thus, the average tax bill for homeowners and businesses is roughly $9,300. The West Brook property, despite its 170-acre size, only contributed $7,491.20 in taxes last year, about 20 percent less than the average tax bill.

Therefore, the impact of removing this land from the tax rolls is a tax increase to you and me of about 60 cents per year. While 60 cents is not a lot, the EC would almost certainly recommend against using West Milford open space funds on land that takes this much money off the tax rolls.

The upsideOn a positive note, the property has potential to attract a wide variety of new visitors and interest in our town. Simply put, if this unique preserve attracts just one visitor who ends up buying a home or opening a business here, that 60 cent tax burden is immediately offset with one new taxpayer.

In the 1990s, I actually became a new taxpayer after exploring a park and falling in love with the natural beauty of West Milford. Today as a hike leader and author of trail guidebooks, I personally know at least a dozen families that became WM taxpayers in exactly this way.

So in the final analysis, I believe West Milford open space should be viewed practically and with a healthy dose of caution. But one thing is certain: we would be well-advised to keep our township’s open space fund intact, so it can be used when opportunities arise that benefit the town and taxpayers.

Don Weise

West Milford

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