Voters to decide on open space fund

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    WEST MILFORD-After a heated debate involving both the town council and the public, the council voted to allow the public to decide on the future of the open space fund. The November ballot will include a question asking whether money from the open space preservation fund can be used for recreation. This will allow the approximate $150,000 collected each year from property taxes to be used for both open space preservation and recreational land acquisition. The existing $600,000 already gathered in the open space fund is not part of the deal. That money would be used solely for preservation. It was the four Republican council members who said "yes" to adding the referendum question. Both Democrats on the council rejected the option. Council member Joe Elcavage, who voted for the referendum, said this week "The referendum [if approved] will provide capital for the purchase and creation of new recreational facilities." Elcavage deplored the lack of recreational facilities in town, saying, "Our children are skateboarding in the ShopRite parking lot. What parks do we have?" Democratic Councilman Bob Nolan, who voted against the referendum, said he believes there is a hidden agenda in the Republicans' desire to place the question on the ballot. "Why wasn't the question on the ballot last year when the Republicans controlled all seven seats?" asked Nolan. "They lost last year [two council seats] and are in danger of losing their council majority if the Democrats win again this year," he continued. "This question is on the ballot to bolster Carmelo Scangarello's re-election bid." Scangarello is the incumbent Republican council member looking to retain his seat on the council. Nolan favors the addition of one-cent tax for recreation spending rather than having the open space fund carrying the dual role. Nolan also criticized the lack of fine detail in the referendum move. "Where is the plan for how to spend the additional monies that we say we need? How many additional fields do we need? Why can't they be created at Jungle Habitat?" he asked. Elcavage, however, views the additional tax differently. "Why increase property taxes, especially since the Highlands Act is restricting development?" he asked. The Highlands Act, which prevents large-scale development in the whole of West Milford, was highlighted in the debate as crucial to the financial and strategic planning in the town. Those who favor allowing recreation access to the fund argue that the Highlands Act prevents development therefore acquiring land is largely unnecessary. Others like Nolan and Democrat colleague James Warden argue that the Act was signed into law "by the stroke of a pen" and could just as easily be removed or significantly amended. With a change in New Jersey's governor to take place at the start of 2006, the campaign offices of both leading candidates gave their vision on the future of the Highlands Act. Ivette Mendez, media spokesperson for Democratic Senator Jon Corzine, said "Senator Corzine strongly supports the Highlands Act and is proud of his role in winning the passage of bipartisan legislation that secures $110 million in federal funding to purchase and preserve undeveloped land in the Highlands region." Mendez wouldn't rule out changes to the act if Corzine is elected governor. "Every law should be reviewed, especially significant ones like the Highlands Act, to ensure that the law is accomplishing its goals," she said. "Senator Corzine believes the governor's office, the DEP, Department of Community Affairs and the Highlands Council all need to work together to ensure Highlands communities have their concerns addressed." The campaign for Doug Forrester, Republican Gubernatorial candidate, spoke strongly in favor of the act. Sherry Sylvester, Forrester's campaign director said, "Doug supports the act and believes in ensuring that the people who live in preservation areas are fairly compensated." As for making any changes to the act, Sylvester said "Doug Forrester believes in stringent preservation measures and would look at the act closely with a view to possible changes. Doug would also make it his intention to ensure the act treats everyone fairly. We have the skills and the knowledge to make the Highlands Act work for everyone."