Open space to weigh heavily on next week's ballots

| 28 Sep 2011 | 03:01

    SPARTA - Taxes will be high on the agenda - at the local, county and state levels - when Sparta residents go to the polls Tuesday. In addition to selecting the state’s next governor and filling an open seat on the township council, Sparta voters will get to decide whether more taxes should be dedicated to land preservation. The county already has a dedicated tax of 2 cents per $100 assessed property value for farmland and open space preservation. The freeholders are proposing an additional 1.5-cent tax, but the township council is urging Sparta residents to vote no on the countywide ballot question. “I am for open space and keeping the beauty of our county and as a council we’ve worked aggressively to keep the flavor of small-town America,” said Sparta Mayor Alish Hambel. “But Sparta puts a lot of tax money into open space and we don’t get back our fair share of the benefits.” The township, which already has a municipal preservation tax, contributes the largest portion of taxes for open space than any of the other 23 municipalities in the county said councilman Scott Seelagy. If approved, the council believes, the township would carry an added burden for protecting the county’s open space without a guaranteed return of investment. “As a council, we want the citizens to know we have an open space tax and that we’ve been aggressive in acquiring open space,” said Hambel. “This is on top of that. We want Sparta residents to understand this money isn’t going to come back to them.” In a open letter, Barbara Davis of the Morris Land Conservancy, encouraged Sussex County residents to approve the new tax (See page 10). “A larger trust will not only increase the amount of dollars available for the county farmland program, it will also attract greater matching funds from the state for land conservation in Sussex County,” she said. “The Morris Land Conservancy strongly supports these initiatives and urges Sussex County residents to vote Yes for open space and farmland preservation.” Hambel concurs with the freeholders who maintain the rural character of the county does have its benefits, particularly in terms of limiting traffic. But with few farms left in Sparta, there is little land to preserve, she said. If approved, Sparta would fund $300,000 of the $2.25 million generated in new taxes a year to the county. Of the $3.1 million that the county took in this year, Sparta contributed $564,000, the most of any town. Sparta already has a 2-cent tax per $100 assessment for open space and land preservation. Residents with a $320,000 property assessment, pay $64 a year into the fund. The dedicated tax, approved overwhelmingly in May 2000, paved the way for the purchase of property at White Lake. The 2-cent county tax, which was approved in November 2000 and expires in December 2009, dedicates 90 percent of the fund to farmland preservation and the remaining 10 percent to open space or recreation. Since 2001, the county’s open space tax has taken in $12 million, spent $4 million and the remaining $8 million is committed to future efforts. Sparta has received $90,000 toward the preservation of a 42-acre tract near Route 94 and additional funding to preserve a farm. The freeholders believe the new tax is more flexible and beneficial to Sparta because it does not define where the funds must be spent or carry an expiration date.