At the August 13, 2019 Borough Council meeting, the Council discussed the items of its lengthy agenda late into the evening. One of the many important items discussed was a proposed resolution to authorize a municipal referendum question to be placed on the November 5, 2019 ballot asking whether an annual open space tax should be imposed on North Caldwell residents to preserve the Walker’s Pond property in its entirety (as opposed to selling a portion of the property for residential development to pay for use of the remainder of the property as public recreational space). As acknowledged by the Council on the record at the meeting, this proposed resolution was never provided to the public before the meeting.
The Council ultimately voted to place the referendum question on the November ballot. Councilman Joshua Raymond motioned to table the resolution after assessing the public sentiment vocalized by residents at the meeting and perceived support from several of his fellow Council members. Councilman John Chiaia surprisingly followed that motion with his own motion to pass the resolution. Here is what you need to know:
The Council rushed the passage of the resolution and risks voter confusion. As is the case with all public referendum questions, the exact wording is critical. Imprecisely wording the question can result in a “yes” vote from confused voters and likely misgauge the public sentiment. As communicated by the Council, the paramount reason for this referendum is to gauge the public’s desire for an open space tax. Nevertheless, this referendum was incredibly rushed. The Council discussed the proposed resolution on August 13 with a looming August 16 deadline for submission to the Essex County Clerk for inclusion on the November ballot. Members of the Council were furiously scribbling changes to the referendum language at 12:30am. The Council did not allow the public to see the proposed language before the meeting, and it was unclear to those members of the public at the meeting what the final language will be.
Even if the public referendum question passes, the Council might still choose to implement a different financing option for the Walker’s Pond Property. As initially proposed by the Council, the Council desired the referendum question to be non-binding (it is unclear if the final version is also non-binding). This means that the Council is asking the public a question but does not need to act in accordance with how the public votes. If the public were to vote for an open space tax to preserve the entirety of the Walker’s Pond Property, the Council would not be obligated to impose the tax. For example, the Council could still vote to sell off part of the property or bond the project instead.
An open space tax can be an important tool to help control development, and it is unfortunate that the Council did not consider this option years earlier, as many other New Jersey municipalities did, to build up a reserve. Open space tax dollars collected are deposited into an Open Space Trust Fund. The dollars do not need to be dedicated to a specific property at the time a municipality establishes an Open Space Trust Fund. Had North Caldwell established the fund years ago, it might have been able to participate in the Green Brook property transfer and preserve at least a portion of it as open space.
We are left to wonder, why is the Council considering an open space tax now in connection with Walker’s Pond? What has changed since the Borough purchased the property to necessitate this action? Did costs to remediate the property increase? Did the Council properly consider all the implications of purchasing the land?
It seems that before the Council asks the public to vote on a preferred method of financing for the recreational aspect of the Walker’s Pond property, the Council should conduct and publish due diligence to determine the amount of financing necessary. The following items should be considered:
The firm plan for the property. Will it include public walkways around the perimeter? Will the building on the property be kept as is?
The firm cost of restoring and maintaining the property. Expenses such as professional, compliance, and environmental costs should be established before setting the amount of the open space tax.
A realistic sale price for each of the five potential single-family residential lots on the property.
Drainage considerations for keeping the pond. We will not have access to the drainage study before the vote occurs.
We hope the above information will be forthcoming from the Council in time for us all to make a fully informed decision in November.
We should all read the November ballot carefully and make sure we have a full understanding of the referendum question before casting our vote. If elected to the Council, Anthony and Ted will work hard to ensure the residents of North Caldwell receive proper advance notice on all future matters of public importance.
Paid for by Floria-Callori and Roth for North Caldwell Council
4 Chestnut Hill Road, North Caldwell, NJ 07006