Township changes position on dam tax

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:41

    Decides against co-signing loan with Friends of Lake Neepaulin, By Tom Hoffman WANTAGE — Following an emotionally-charged two-hour public meeting at High Point Regional High School Monday night, Wantage Township Committee reversed its position on co-signing a loan with the Friends of Lake Neepaulin (FOLN) for lake dam repairs. Representatives of that group said they may consider suing the town over this change of position. After listening to expert testimony and public comments on the pros and cons of repairing or decommissioning the dam, the three-person township committee effectively decided to do nothing. If there is to be a special tax assessment imposed against Lake Neepaulin residents to pay for $600,000 to $700,000 in estimated dam repairs, “it would come from Trenton and not from me,” said Wantage Mayor Parker Space, describing his position as “the hardest decision I’ve had to make in six years on the committee.” Space told the crowd of about 150 people that he’d recently been informed by Sussex County Clerk Erma Gormley “there was no way” she could organize a special ballot vote for just the so-called R-2 zone or group of residents affected by the status of the dam. A troubling tax For her part, Wantage Township Committeeperson Clara Nuss told the crowd she was troubled about imposing a special tax since the lake is privately owned by the 125-member civic group. Although Nuss said she doesn’t want to see the lake decommissioned and drained, she also said she couldn’t support a special tax. In the end, Space, Nuss and fellow committeeman Bill DeBoer voted unanimously to rescind an October ordinance authorizing a special tax assessment for 720 residents of the Lake Neepaulin area. Under one of the options that had been considered by Wantage Tax Assessor Melissa Rockwell, 59 lakefront residents would have each paid a special tax of $140 per year over the course of a 20-year loan while 563 other residents of the area would have paid about $77 per year. Owners of 96 vacant lots there would have been charged $42 annually under a special tax assessment. It’s nearly official A new ordinance to rescind the existing one is expected to be approved at the next Township Committee meeting on June 4. Eileen McCarthy Born, an attorney with Dolan and Dolan in Newton, which represents FOLN, said the organization will explore options, including the possibility of suing the town. “Obviously FOLN won’t be able to afford a loan on its own,” she added. One expert brought in to testify on behalf of FOLN, Victor Maglio of Stockholm-based Civil Dynamics, Inc., said that the costs to decommission the dam could be nearly as expensive as fixing it. In addition, the cost to manage or remove lake sediment, if needed, could run another $100,000 to $200,000; all told, the figures could run up to $600,000. Those estimates exclude engineering costs, which FOLN has already paid for. Larry Kovar, an aquatic ecologist hired by FOLN who works for Stillwater-based Aquatic Analysts, Inc., estimated that the lake holds just shy of 50 million gallons of water. If the lake is decommissioned, it would cost about $5,000 to remove pickerel, bass and other fish, he said. That’s just one of the considerations for local residents. If the lake is decommissioned and its water table lowered, “a musty aroma” would permeate the surrounding area “for several years,” said Kovar. Vocal audience More than 20 residents spoke out at the meeting, with opponents of the dam repairs the loudest and most vocal group. One member of the opposition party, Kathy Gorman, argued that a dam repair project for a privately-owned lake should be handled by FOLN and that the town isn’t obligated to co-sign a loan with the group. “It is the job of township officials to treat all taxpayers equally,” said Gorman. But others, such as Wantage Township resident Frank Galligan, likened the community benefits of dam repairs to the obligation that property owners face in paying school taxes — even if they don’t have any children of their own in the school district. “You pay for the things that are necessary,” said Galligan. Time will tell who pays for the dam repairs or its decommissioning.