UPPER TOWNSHIP - Former Gov. James Florio on Friday said his new clients in Strathmere have a good chance of winning their secession battle in court.

The civic group Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach hired the former governor's Warren County law firm to represent it in its presumed appeal to the state Superior Court.

The group is hoping a state judge will allow them to split from the mainland in Upper Township to become part of Sea Isle City.

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The Township Committee this week unanimously rejected Strathmere's request to secede.

"I'm very aware of the commonality of interests between Sea Isle City and Strathmere," said Florio, who has a second home in Sea Isle City. "I think the arguments are fairly forceful and strong."

Dennis Township lawyer Mary D'Arcy Bittner represented the islanders before the Planning Board. She will remain the group's co-counsel.

Florio said he is still familiarizing himself with the details of the case, but he said he found several of the island's arguments compelling.

"The benefits to Strathmere residents clearly outweigh the detriments to the rest of Upper Township," he said.

Courts have looked unfavorably on "tax shopping," in which towns try to join neighbors to pay a lower property-tax rate. Strathmere focused its argument on the contention that the island's needs were not being served by a mainland township.

Florio said beach towns in New Jersey have made persuasive cases in the past to split from a neglectful mainland. But locally, Avalon Manor lost its bid to break from Middle Township after the courts rejected the appeal in 2004. Diamond Beach dropped its effort to merge with Wildwood Crest after Lower Township agreed to provide more services.

Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo said the township will defend its position in court if necessary.

"We're not going to roll over," he said. "I'm not intimidated by the former governor. What lawyer wouldn't say they thought they had a good chance in court?"

Palombo noted that Florio would pay less in property taxes on his summer home if Sea Isle absorbed Strathmere's $393 million in taxable property. By contrast, the township estimates that school taxes on the mainland would climb by at least 20 percent.

"I don't care what anyone says, tax-shopping is what they're doing," Palombo said. "It has everything to do with taxes, and they know it."

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