Open Space Lost In 2018 Election In Ocean County

The land in Plumsted will likely be preserved for open space. (Photo courtesy Ocean County)

OCEAN COUNTY – In the weeks after the 2018 election, people are still taking stock of who are the winners and losers, and how that will shape the coming year. But there is one surprising loser in Ocean County. Two towns – Toms River and Beach Haven – had referendum questions that would increase open space, and both were rejected by voters.

Toms River already has an open space tax of 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Voters approved this in 2000, with the first tax being collected in 2001. If the referendum had passed, it would have doubled to 3 cents.

Township officials had said that the town collects about $900,000 a year now, and this measure, if passed, would have doubled it. Residents who live in a home valued at around $300,000, which is roughly the township average, would have seen their open space tax increase from $45 to $90.

Last year, Toms River had a similar question on the ballot asking people if they wanted more open space. There were 17,949 votes “yes” votes to 3,852 “no” votes. Specifically, it asked if the residents wanted to buy 250 acres of space.

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However, that was just a nonbinding referendum. This means that the question was just asked to gauge the public’s interest.

So, this year’s referendum would have actually raised more money. The referendum went down 17,121 “no” votes to 11,267 “yes” votes. Roughly the same amount of people who voted “yes” last year voted “no” this year.

Toms River Councilwoman Maria Maruca took a moment during the most recent Township Council meeting to lament the vote going down.

When last year’s nonbinding referendum passed with such a strong margin, “I thought that was the mandate from voters,” she said.

What was significant was that the vote went down across the township, she said. If you look at the voting results for individual districts, there wasn’t a single district where it passed. She thought that was extremely surprising in the northern parts of the township where residents are complaining about increased traffic.

Beach Haven doesn’t have an open space tax yet, but Mayor Nancy Taggart Davis was pushing for it to pass.

(Photo by Chris Lundy)

The vote was close, 250 “no” votes to 220 “yes” votes. It would have instituted an open space tax of 1 cent per $100 of assessed valuation. The money could be used for acquiring or maintaining land for recreation, conservation, and historic purposes. It would also have provided the borough the opportunity to receive Green Acres funding for these kinds of projects.

On a house valued at $1 million, it would have been a charge of about $100 a year. “In the long run, it would save taxpayers money,” Davis said. The borough has recreational facilities that need to be maintained, and this would allow Green Acres funding to help that.

Besides acquiring open space, there are other benefits to acquiring land. Keeping it from being developed means that there is more open ground for water to recede into, which would help to control flooding, she said. Some land is marshland but people still manage to build on it.
“Right now, people have the attitude that no one can build on wetlands, but they do,” she said.

“We have the most density on the entire island,” she said. Neighboring communities already have this. Long Beach Township has it, and so does Barnegat Light.

The borough was looking at land that had been owned by a power company, she said. That could be acquired and turned into either a park or a parking lot. Green Acres could have helped with that.

Sometimes, property becomes available suddenly and if you don’t have cash on hand, you can’t purchase it, she said. When a municipality crafts a budget, every dollar is accounted for. There’s no money just sitting around ready to be used like that.

She said she’s not sure when, or if, it will be before voters again.

“This was the third time we tried to pass it,” she said.