A Superior Court judge ruled Monday that the Strathmere section of Upper Township cannot secede from the rest of the municipality.
“A significant decision was made today that certainly has a gigantic impact on the township,” Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo said Monday night during the Township Committee’s regularly scheduled meeting.
He said the ongoing legal battle was the “most critical issue” he has faced in the 11 years he has been serving as the township’s mayor.
Municipal officials have been pitted against the Strathmere group since 2007, when 83 percent of registered voters signed a petition in hopes of seceding from the township and joining Sea Isle City, which shares the same island.
But in her ruling Monday, Judge Valerie Armstrong said the Upper Township Planning Board and the Upper Township Committee “more than adequately” explained their reasons for denying Strathmere’s request for secession, including financial loss to the township.
Upper Township would lose 17.5 percent of its $2.4 billion tax base if Strathmere left. Additionally, $4 million would be lost annually in township school taxes.
Strathmere residents have argued, however, that the township government does not pay enough attention to the island community’s needs. The group says Strathmere would be better served by Sea Isle City, which has a more similar tax base.
Armstrong previously upheld the township’s decision in 2007 to reject Strathmere residents’ petition. Voters subsequently compiled a second, more complete petition. That petition went through 14 months of Planning Board hearings, only to have the Planning Board recommend the Township Committee reject the petition — a recommendation the committee accepted.
Armstrong ruled Monday on residents’ appeal of those rejections.
“The denial of the deannexation petition was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable given the extensive record created before the Planning Board, and subsequently provided to and considered by the Township Committee in this matter,” Armstrong concluded.
Deputy Mayor Curtis Corson said that after the “tedious, long drawn-out process,” he was happy Armstrong ruled in favor of the Township.
“If this were approved, the ramifications would have been horrific for this committee,” Corson said during the meeting.
Although Palombo said he is happy Armstrong agreed with township officials, he does not want to gloat.
“I don’t think anyone wants to pound their chest about it,” he said. “But I still contend this was the right decision.”
Township Solicitor Dan Young also called the decision a success for the township. Young said the secession could cause “devastation” on the township’s tax base and a number of “social issues” in the community. He said he hopes there is no further appeal.
Armstrong’s decision can be appealed by the township or members of the Citizens for Strathmere & Whale Beach.
A phone call to former Gov. James Florio, who represents the Strathmere and Whale Beach residents, was not returned Monday. Neither was a phone call to George Welker, president of Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach.
Other bids to secede have been similarly unsuccessful. Avalon Manor lost its bid to break from Middle Township in 2004 after the courts rejected the appeal, and Diamond Beach dropped an effort to merge with Wildwood Crest after Lower Township agreed to provide better services.
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