Judge upholds property assessments

WEST MILFORD. If the township had lost the case over the Newark watershed property, it would have owed about $11 million.

| 26 Jun 2024 | 04:51

A judge has affirmed West Milford’s property tax assessments on Newark watershed properties in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.

That is a big win, said Fred Semrau, who represented West Milford in litigation over appeals of the assessments.

During the Township Council meeting June 12, Semrau said West Milford would have been ordered to pay Newark $11 million if it lost the case.

In a letter to the lawyers dated June 7, Joshua Novin, judge of the Tax Court of New Jersey, upheld the assessments. He said that in each year involved in the case, the ratio of assessed value to true market value fell within West Milford’s upper and lower limits. Therefore, no change in the tax assessments was warranted.

The City of Newark and its Division of Sewer and Water owns 117 parcels, totaling about 16,485 acres, in West Milford. They were acquired by Newark in the early 1900s and are used to protect and preserve the city’s water supply.

The watershed property includes Echo Lake, Clinton Reservoir and parts of Canistear Reservoir.

The litigation dates back to 1952, when Newark won reductions in West Milford’s assessments in a case that still is cited by lawyers today, Semrau said.

West Milford also filed unsuccessful lawsuits in 1983 and 1992.

Since 2013, West Milford has raised its assessments three times from $1,500 an acre, or a total of $24.7 million, to more than $3,000 an acre, or a total of nearly $50 million, in 2023.

After the latest ruling, the land would be assessed at about $4,000 an acre, Semrau said.

Newark’s lawyers argued that the land is worth about $150 an acre because it’s open space and doesn’t bring in any revenue, he said.

West Milford’s lawyers argued that there is a market for the watershed property although it’s limited. “There’s some viability to this property, and some viability gives us a lot of value.”

On another matter, Semrau said a new assessment of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. (TGP) property at 960 Burnt Meadow Road was about $11.5 million. The previous assessment was $3.5 million.

The increase means that TGP will pay an additional $312,183 in taxes to the township for 2024.

Redevelopment plans

In other business, Township Administrator Bill Senande said the Planning Board has determined that two properties are in need of redevelopment.

One property is at 299-301 Marshall Hill Road and the other is across the street at the corner of Marshall Hill and Airport roads.

After the board approves resolutions, Senande will present the matter to the council to move forward with redevelopment plans.

Eagle Scout projects

During the meeting, Mayor Michele Dale recognized Eagle Scouts Erik Reilly and Ryan Eckhardt.

Eckhardt created a fishing board at the pond by Bubbling Springs for his Eagle Scout project.

“The fishing board not only provides a platform for fishing enthusiasts but it also serves as an educational tool,” Dale said. “Ryan’s thoughtful, innovative project truly enriches our community and fosters a deeper appreciation of our natural environment.”

Reilly built a gaga pit at Paradise Knoll Elementary School, “providing a fun and engaging space for students to enjoy outdoor activities and games.”

“His contribution to the school undoubtedly will benefit countless children for years to come, promoting physical activity, social interaction and a sense of community spirit among the students.”