Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari tries to convince the board to delay a plan to use open space funds for recreational and historic use on Dec. 16, 2020.
TOMS RIVER – Concern over how Ocean County’s open space tax fund will be used in the future has provoked discord between environmentalists and the Board of Freeholders heading into 2021.
Last Wednesday, the five-member, all-Republican freeholder board voted 3-0 to approve the Ocean County Open Space, Parks and Recreation Plan, which had been mired in controversy for months. Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari abstained from the vote in protest, and Freeholder Jack Kelly did not attend what was the last meeting of the year.
The issue is over whether the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Program will remain true to its founding principle, to preserve open space from real estate development, or see large amounts of its revenue diverted for uses that do little to protect the natural environment. Watch the debate unfold in the video above.
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In November 2019, county voters approved — 56,982 votes to 45,662 votes (or 55.5% to 44.5%) — a proposal to expand the 23-year-old program so that its tax revenue could be tapped for the acquisition, development and maintenance of recreational and historic projects, in addition to open space and farmland conservation.
The story continues below the gallery.
“We have expressed — since prior to the public question being offered — that we were concerned about the slippery slope, that has been our issue all along,” said Britta Wenzel, executive director of the local environmental group Save Barnegat Bay.
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$60 million available
The ballot question did not specify what percentage of revenue in the open space tax fund could be used for recreational or historic use and neither does the plan freeholders adopted at its Wednesday meeting last week, Wenzel said.
“It is my understanding — I’m not a lawyer, but you have lawyers present here to represent you and advise you — that you have the discretion as a board to set those rates if it wasn’t offered in the original ballot question,” Wenzel said when she addressed freeholders at the meeting.
Freeholder Gary Quinn, who is liaison to the county Department of Planning and will lead the board next year as its director, said he is willing to entertain a recommendation about rates from the nine-member Natural Lands Trust Fund Advisory Committee.
Ocean County Freeholder Gary Quinn in this Asbury Park Press file photo from July. (Photo: Peter Ackerman)
“But it’s going to be kind of unknown for at least the first year, I would think, on how much money would be spent — whether it’s maintaining recreation and improving recreation, or the condition of historic buildings,” Quinn said. “We don’t know, because there’s so many issues out there. That’s why it was put to the voters to begin with, on a referendum, so that we wouldn’t have to go into the general budget every year.”
Since 1998, the program — which gets its revenue from a dedicated county property tax of 1.2-cents per $100 of assessed value (generating about $10 million each year) — has preserved about 30,000 acres of once private land that is now protected in perpetuity from development.
Currently, the open space fund has about $60 million in cash on hand, according to county officials.
All that county-owned land is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and police, so a greater flexibility of the program is needed to help offset those expenses, Quinn said.
Vicari raised concerns about the lack of constraints within the new open space plan, while emphasizing the point that he was not opposed to the freeholder board taking on recreational or historic projects.
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He cited a Democratic-led plan in the late 1970s to build the ice rink at Toms River’s Winding River Park that cost taxpayers $1 million to build at the time — about $4.2 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation — as an example of how future open space money could be spent under the new open space plan as written.
“When some person — a good friend of mine, a personal friend — loved ice skates, loved ice hockey, he decided that the township should build a hockey rink,” Vicari said, who ran for and won a seat on what was the Dover Township Committee in 1979. The ice rink had been a thorny political issue in Toms River for Vicari’s Democratic opponents, who were then the incumbents.
Ocean County Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari in this Asbury Park Press file photo from July. (Photo: Peter Ackerman)
“If you want to build ice rinks, roller rinks, I will support it,” the freeholder director said. “But it should not be done with open space money.”
Vicari said he wanted the proposed plan sent back to the Natural Lands Trust Fund Advisory Committee for further review and clarification.
“All I’m asking you for is the courtesy that we review one term: recreation — what it means … so we know what we’re dealing with,” Vicari said.
The freeholder director also cited more than 20 emails the freeholder board received before the start of the meeting in opposition to its adoption of the new open space plan.
One of those emails was from William deCamp Jr., president of Save Barnegat Bay.
In his letter to the freeholder board dated Dec. 16, deCamp objected to the county holding in-person meetings only, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, without any way for the public to participate in a virtual or online manner.
“As I have respectfully suggested twice this year to the Board of Freeholders, it is completely unreasonable that the cost of civic participation should be risking one’s life,” deCamp wrote, which was read into the official record by Mary Ann Cilento, clerk of the freeholder board. “This is hardcore nontransparency. Ocean County has a large number of senior citizens. By hosting in-person freeholder meetings with zero online components during a pandemic, the freeholder board stiff-arms any intent that seniors, or those in at-risk groups, or those with loved ones in at-risk groups, may have toward civic participation.”
“The open space plan as it is currently drafted is lacking in specific boundaries as to how $60 million of public money will be spent,” deCamp wrote. “This is adverse to the public interest, and the public deserves an authentic opportunity to participate.”
Freeholder Virginia E. Haines, chairwoman of parks and recreation on the board, pushed back on Vicari’s argument that 23 emails were enough to postpone a scheduled vote on adoption of the revised open space plan — a vote which the freeholder board previously postponed in November over another disagreement among them.
At that time, a majority of freeholders disagreed with language that would have allowed the county to purchase existing public land with open space tax money.
Ocean County Freeholder Virginia E. Haines in this Asbury Park Press file photo from July. (Photo: Peter Ackerman)
Haines pointed out Wednesday that the county professionals had reviewed the revised plan and that the document had been approved by the Ocean County Planning Board twice over the past two months. The second time was earlier this month after Haines ordered the controversial language removed.
The revised plan as written Wednesday aptly reflected the will of the voters, both Haines and Quinn agreed.
“I didn’t make any changes to the plan, the people of Ocean County made changes to the plan,” Haines said, in reference to the 2019 referendum question.
“We did receive 23 emails (Wednesday),” Haines said. “Some of them were from Ocean County, some were not. But out of a population of over 600,000? It is people who are concerned, yes.”
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Vicari continued to insist that a postponement of the vote was appropriate. However, Haines told Vicari she disagreed with him and made a motion to introduce the resolution over his objection. Quinn seconded the motion.
Freeholder Gerry P. Little joined Haines and Quinn on a roll call vote in support of the measure.
Calling the vote a “Hobson’s choice,” Vicari abstained.
“In the history of this Board of Freeholders, there’s never been one situation where a freeholder asked for more information and more time, where it was denied,” he said. “So, I will abstain from the vote for one reason, just to make a point.”
Erik Larsen: 732-682-9359 or [email protected]
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