Do we really need another tax?
By Rich Kohler
Every year, New Jersey voters head to the polls on Election Day with thoughts of rising property taxes weighing heavily on their minds, and this year is no exception. Most of us vote for the candidates that we believe – or hope – would make responsible use of our tax dollars while working to improve the quality of life in our community. This November, Hazlet citizens also have an opportunity to consider a referendum that would implement an additional tax on township property owners. The proposed tax intends to “raise revenue for the acquisition, preservation and improvement of lands for open space, conservation, recreation, farmland preservation and historic preservation purposes.”
The 2006 election will mark the fourth time that the question of an open space tax has appeared before Hazlet voters, and despite three previous rejections, the Hazlet Environmental Commission has decided to try yet again. This latest plan is similar to those proposed in previous years. Beyond taxing an additional penny for every dollar of assessed property value, the “plan” is still vague. Supporters of the previous open space tax initiatives blamed the ambiguous wording of the referendums for the voters’ repeated rejection. The past plans included “maintenance”, such as grass cutting and repairs to existing structures. This year’s version includes “improvements”, described as hiking trails and parking facilities.
In the past, Hazlet has managed its remaining undeveloped land in a variety of ways, with mixed results.
Several years ago, the then Democrat-led Township Committee attempted to establish a site for a new town hall at the corner of Middle Road and Union Avenue, by acquiring the land through eminent domain. The result was a disaster. The ensuing legal and engineering fees ultimately exceeded the value of the land itself, and the township eventually purchased the land as open space. This property remains in its natural state, but at an excessive cost to Hazlet.
In 2004, the Republican-led Township Committee conducted an auction to sell an undeveloped piece of property and used the proceeds to offset a municipal tax hike, knocking ten cents off an anticipated fourteen-cent increase. The property presently remains undeveloped, and the township as a whole benefited from its sale.
Last year, the Hazlet Board of Education and its then president, Democratic candidate Joseph Belasco, sold wooded land near Raritan High School to a developer. The proceeds from this sale did little, if anything, to offset the ever-rising school tax and the new owner has threatened to sue the township for the right to build fifty-eight low-income units on Middle Road.
Another parcel of undeveloped land is the Stone Road Meadows, a cornfield on Highway 36, next to the former Bradlees store. Some residents want the township to purchase and preserve this thirty-acre plot as a county park, but the initiative lacks logic. The land does not have any historical, environmental, or scenic attributes, and it falls well below the 100-acre minimum required for county park designation. Responsibly developed as a mixed-use property, this area could bring much needed tax revenue, which would help hold down the tax rate for residents.
The Waackaack Creek area is a sensitive estuary that flows directly into the Raritan Bay. This land on Hazlet’s eastern boarder is home to many species of wildlife, can be connected to county and state greenway passages, and is worthy of preservation. The township Republicans began actively seeking ways to acquire this land with little or no cost to Hazlet residents – through state and county programs and collaboration with legislators in higher office. Not to be outdone, the Democrats have since claimed their determination to accomplish the same goal through similar cooperation with different environmental organizations and government programs. After two years of wrangling over which political party deserves credit for the pending preservation of Waackaack Creek, we are still waiting for the final word on this vital project. Political grandstanding tends to stall great ideas.
The Hazlet Township Committee, in conjunction with another project, recently created a walking track at Leocadia Park and rebuilt the hockey rink at Veterans Park. With bipartisan effort and support, the committee undertook these projects to improve our existing parks at significant cost savings, demonstrating that a competent administration is capable of planning and achieving “open space” goals without an additional tax.
The preservation and improvement of open space is imperative, and when undeveloped space is limited as it is in Hazlet, a case-by-case approach with both parties working together is more effective than additional taxes, vague or illogical plans, and politically strategic photo-ops.
Rich Kohler is a life-long resident of Hazlet. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. All of Rich Kohler’s columns are available online at http://middleroadhazlet.blogspot.com/.