UPPER TOWNSHIP — Strathmere’s attorney said Monday she did not know how to begin to convince the Township Committee to allow the island to secede and join Sea Isle City.
The petitioners were given one last chance Monday to appeal to the five-member committee to grant the island’s request to split.
But the Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach had an admittedly hard sell. All five members of the Township Committee live on the mainland. Two serve on the Planning Board, which, after a year of hearings, strongly recommended against the split in March.
And a third member, Jay Newman, is the husband of Board of Education member Fran Newman, whose district would suffer financial losses without Strathmere’s considerable tax dollars.
Strathmere’s attorney, Mary D’Arcy Bittner, told the committee Monday it was obvious to her that the committee had its collective mind made up a year ago, when it hired special legal counsel to fight secession even before the island filed its request.
Bittner made her appeal anyway. During a presentation that turned rancorous and argumentative, the committee and its solicitor interrupted numerous times.
Solicitor Dan Young took special issue with Bittner’s allegation the committee met improperly behind closed doors a year ago to discuss the petition as it was being circulated by Strathmere residents.
“I take offense that you suggest I gave advice to violate the law,” Young said.
Strathmere has to prove the mainland would not suffer any economic or social hardships. Bittner said the mainland would save money by not having to replenish Strathmere’s beaches or provide it with public services if a split were allowed. The township also would not be harmed socially, Bittner argued, because the island hamlet has its own civic groups, churches and social outlets.
The Township Committee contradicted Bittner point by point.
“If you care about Strathmere, you would have gotten them the police protection they asked for for years. No other town in New Jersey has a citizenry that pays for policing,” she said.
“That’s their decision,” Mayor Richard Palombo replied.
She suggested the mainland would be better served if State Police could focus on the mainland’s rural roads instead of traveling to and from Strathmere.
“You should have gone down Roosevelt Boulevard at 4 p.m.,” Palombo said about Monday’s bank robbery in Marmora. “There were 30 trooper cars there.”
She noted in 1983 the committee had inquired with Sea Isle City about having the city annex Strathmere during a bitter dispute with residents over water rates. And after the disastrous storm of 1962, township documents described Strathmere as a liability, she said.
Bittner also accused the Planning Board of framing the debate in legal terms designed to scuttle Strathmere’s efforts.
Planning Board Chairwoman Renee Scrocca told the committee Monday her board had an open mind about the application.
“This was a very considered process. Even though Ms. Bittner suggested we had an agenda coming into this procedure, we didn’t,” Scrocca said. “I counted up 58 hours of testimony. We gave days and days of our lives listening to facts.”
From the start, the petitioners seemed determined to argue their case to an audience outside Upper Township. Both the petitioners and the Planning Board presented testimony peppered with legal jargon to bolster cases to withstand a court’s scrutiny.
Courts have been reluctant to allow “tax shopping,” in which residents try to get a better tax deal through secession. There have been several examples from Cape May County in recent years, including Avalon Manor’s failed bid to split from Middle Township. Strathmere residents, however, have been focusing on proving the mainland township has under-served the island hamlet.
The committee is expected to vote on Strathmere’s request later this month.
The township can approve the application, paving the way for deannexation. If it rejects the application, Strathmere residents said they will appeal to state Superior Court.
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