UPPER TOWNSHIP - Strathmere residents are taking their secession case to court in their bid to join Sea Isle City.
The civic group Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court last week alleging the township was wrong to deny its petition to deannex and join its island neighbor to the south, Sea Isle City.
The complaint against the Township Committee and the Planning Board alleges both were wrong, said the group's co-counsel, Mary D'Arcy Bittner.
The Planning Board conducted more than a year of hearings before unanimously rejecting the request. The Township Committee, composed of five mainland residents, agreed with the board.
This month, a state appeals court ruled in favor of another beach community, Bay Beach Way, which fought to leave Toms River Township in Ocean County and join neighboring Lavallette. Like Strathmere, neighbors on Bay Beach Way argued the mainland township neglected the islanders with regard to municipal services such as snow removal.
Strathmere residents allege Upper Township neglected the island's beach erosion and public safety, among other issues. Like the mainland, the island falls under the jurisdiction of the State Police in the Woodbine barracks. But for the past several years, a local civic group has paid the State Police for a special detail to patrol the island on the busiest weekends of the summer.
Mayor Richard Palombo said Strathmere residents were never neglected, particularly in the past year when the township arranged to work with the state on a $6 million beach-replenishment project that began last week.
"That's something I worked my butt off to take care of. It's not an easy task. We're very pleased it's getting done," Palombo said.
Township Solicitor Dan Young said he has not examined the entire complaint, but he said based on the Township Committee's deliberations, any appeal appears baseless to him.
"This challenge is going to be found without merit. They were clearly within the law when they made their decision," he said.
Young said there is a big difference between the Strathmere case and the Toms River case.
"The court found there would be no substantial harm in (Bay Beach Way's) leaving," he said. "Strathmere represents 17.5 percent of the township's ratables and $2 million per year to the school district. You'd be hard-pressed to say there wouldn't be substantial harm to the township if Strathmere were to secede.
"I think when the law and statute are applied to the Upper Township situation, the Township Committee will be vindicated," he said.
The dispute between an island neighborhood and its mainland township is not new to Cape May County. Avalon Manor made an unsuccessful bid in 2003 to leave Middle Township for Avalon. Diamond Beach dropped its effort to join Wildwood Crest in 2003 after Lower Township agreed to provide better services.
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