Egg Harbor Township officials paid an unexpected visit to Wednesday's Longport Commission meeting to put their neighbors on notice.
In an effort to avoid an estimated half-million dollars in legal costs fighting the secession of Seaview Harbor, Township Administrator Peter Miller wanted to know if Longport was interested in annexing the affluent bayside community.
“If the situation was reversed ... you’d probably be asking Egg Harbor Township the same question,” Miller said during the public comment portion of Longport’s meeting. Deputy Mayor Paul Hodson also attended, but didn’t speak.
Longport left behind the land that became Seaview Harbor when it broke away from the township in 1898. Since then, the former marshland has become a community of 92 homes with a restaurant and about 300 boat slips. Today, it accounts for more than $100 million in ratables.
Seaview Harbor residents have discussed leaving the township sporadically during the course of decades, citing a perceived lack of services and the distance from much of the rest of the municipality.
Township officials, however, have pointed to the money spent on infrastructure, such as the community’s sewer system, and that units from both municipalities respond to emergencies in Seaview Harbor.
Last month, Seaview Harbor filed a petition to secede with the signatures of more than 60 percent of registered voters in the community. Miller said the issue will be heard by the township’s Planning Board on March 31.
But that’s only the first step in the process.
During his presentation to Longport officials, Miller said the township will oppose the secession. He believes the ensuing court battle could continue for three or four years and cost each side about $250,000 in legal fees.
Miller also said that, if the secession effort proves successful, Longport would be liable for $3.5 million, Seaview Harbor’s proportionate share of the township’s outstanding debt.
Under state law, Longport isn’t required to take a stance until the matter of whether Seaview Harbor can legally separate from Egg Harbor Township is resolved.
For their part, Longport officials remain noncommittal.
Longport Solicitor Pat Agnellini said the borough has not commissioned a formal study of the issue because the general consensus of the governing body was to wait until their input was needed.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t want to expend the money at this time,” he said.
That may not be the fairest result for the township or Seaview Harbor, Agnellini acknowledged, but the alternative would be to spend Longport’s money.
Mayor Nick Russo said the plan was always for Longport to engage in its own fact-finding as opposed to relying on the information provided to it by either party. Regardless of what that process turned up, he said, the ultimate decision should be left to the voters.
“If this is a good idea, then the Longport voters will know it’s a good idea,” he said.
The sentiment was echoed by Commissioner Dan Lawler.
“We might not be in these seats to make that decision for you in three-to-four years, so that decision would be premature,” he said.
Longport could try to bring the issue to voters via a referendum sooner than the end of the process, Lawler said, but “we’d look to be helped with the cost of something like that.”
Such a referendum would give everyone an indication of Longport’s stance on the issue right away, he added.
Miller suggested having a nonbinding referendum on November’s ballot, but Longport officials gave no indication of whether they approved of the idea.
“Nothing said here will diminish the relationship we have to each other,” Miller said, toward the end of the exchange.
Ed McGlinchey, president of the Seaview Harbor Community Association, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the petitioners know the expense and time involved with a secession effort and are undeterred. Similarly, he said, a voter referendum in Longport may not sway them, either.
“It doesn’t matter to us,” he said. “We’re fighting one battle at a time.”
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
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