Township weighs options for lake dam

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:30

    Dammed if they do; dammed if they don’t help with repairs By Tom Hoffman WANTAGE — Emotions ran high at the Wantage Township Committee meeting last week as 100 people jammed the Municipal Building to air their views about the proposed Lake Neepaulin dam repair project. And while the matter wasn’t close to being resolved that night, the outpouring of public interest in the dam and its potential impact on residential taxes has led the committee to plan a special meeting to resolve the situation. Wantage Township Attorney Michael Garofalo kicked off the discussions by explaining the three options available to the committee: The committee could introduce a special assessment ordinance whereby a select group of taxpayers (i.e. Lake Neepaulin residents) would be hit with a special tax to pay for the dam project. The dam work has been estimated by an engineer hired by the Friends of Lake Neepaulin to cost $1 million. Under one estimate announced by Wantage Township Tax Assessor Melissa Rockwell, 59 lakefront residents would each pay a special tax of $140 per year over the course of a 20-year loan, while 563 other residents of the lake community would each pay about $77 per year. Owners of 96 vacant lots there would each pay $42 annually under the plan. The committee could co-sign a loan for the dam repairs and tax all 11,500 residents of the township. For a $1 million loan at 2 percent interest over 20 years, that would work out to about $13.52 in additional taxes for the average Wantage property owner with an assessed property value of $322,000, said Township Administrator Jim Doherty. The tax would be higher for owners of properties with higher assessed property values and vice-versa. The committee could do nothing and not co-sign a loan for the dam repairs. Then, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection could decide to drain the lake. The same engineer estimated that it would cost about $1 million to remove the dam. “Every single option will more than likely lead to a lawsuit” against the township, said Garofalo. For the three-person township committee, “they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” he said. What’s fair? One Wantage resident who attended the meeting questioned the fairness of taxing every resident to repair a dam on a lake that’s only available for use by 100 or so members of the Friends of Lake Neepaulin. Another resident, Christine Feoranzo, stated that if all township residents were to bear the costs of the dam repairs then “the lake rights should be opened up to all residents.” Under state law, a group such as Friends of Lake Neepaulin would need the township to co-sign a loan for dam repairs, said Garofalo. If the township did conduct a special tax assessment, said Garofalo, it would be made against “those people who are benefitted by the dam repairs.” Since there aren’t any clear definitions as to who would benefit from the dam repair, it would be up to Rockwell to make that determination, he said. And that decision is also likely to be legally challenged by opponents. “Everyone benefits if the dam is repaired,” since the preservation of the lake would benefit firefighting, provide an aquifer for wells and deliver additional benefits to area residents, said Wantage Township resident Robert Heiden. Not everyone agreed. “The Friends of Lake Neepaulin are the ones who are benefitting,” said one male resident. “It’s a scam and I’m tired of it.” “We won’t know what the costs to repair the dam are until the state comes in and does the assessment,” said Eileen Gordon, an attorney who represents the Friends group. If the dam were removed, said Gordon, “then you’ll have no doubt lost the property values” once the lake has been drained. But another Wantage Township resident, Joe Kopec, countered that it’s those people who live on the lakefront who would face the biggest drop in property values if the lake were to be drained. In the meantime, Doherty is checking with the two local school districts to find a school building that could be used in the next few weeks to accommodate a larger meeting with township residents to discuss the dam issues. Check the township’s Web site: for updates on meetings about the dam at Lake Neepaulin.