UPPER TOWNSHIP - The Planning Board on Thursday rejected Strathmere's petition to secede from the mainland, wrapping up an epic 14-month hearing and setting the stage for a likely court challenge.
The civic group Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach petitioned the Planning Board in 2007 to secede from the mainland township to join Sea Isle City, the resort community with which they share an island.
The group alleged Strathmere receives inadequate township services. They focused on beach erosion that threatened homes, and complained of inadequate police coverage, routine flooding, incompetent school transportation and a slow township response to the everyday issues of island life.
Sitting under the 1798 township seal that features an oceangoing sailboat, the board voted 9-0 in a nonbinding resolution to reject the petition and keep their seaside hamlet.
"In reviewing this matter over 14 months, I don't believe any (of those) issues are the real reason the petition was filed. All the testimony points to one inescapable conclusion," board Chairwoman Renee Scrocca said.
"'The services we get don't match the level of taxes we pay,'" she said quoting testimony from a Strathmere resident. "That is the crux of the matter."
Courts have been reluctant to allow "tax shopping," in which residents try to get a better tax deal through secession. Strathmere residents have been focusing instead on proving they are underserved by the mainland township.
The push to secede coincided with the 2007 revaluation, when property values ballooned on the island. Residents complained they were bearing a disproportionately high percentage of township school taxes, even though Strathmere, with a year-round population of about 100, sends just a couple students to public schools.
Mainlanders would pay 21 percent higher school taxes if Strathmere joined Sea Isle, taking the island's $395 million in property value with it, according to testimony by the township auditor. The average mainland homeowner would pay $700 more in school taxes. (The township does not have a local purpose tax thanks to $6.6 million per year in Energy Receipts Taxes it gets for hosting the B.L. England power plant.)
Strathmere residents - led by their lawyer, Mary D'Arcy Bittner – based their secession argument on inadequate services. The mainland was either unwilling or unable to meet the unique needs of a barrier island, residents said.
A retired State Police detective testified that Strathmere would be better served if it were policed by Sea Isle City. A police presence was so badly missed on the island, that a civic group and the local fire company paid State Police $80 per hour for a special detail to station a trooper in Strathmere on weekend nights the last two summers.
Countering that, the board solicited testimony from the State Police station commander in Woodbine who said response times to Strathmere were comparable to other parts of the township.
Most Planning Board members, including the two members of the Township Committee who serve on the board, disputed the suggestion that Strathmere residents got short shrift from the local government. And they concluded that secession would cause serious economic and social harm to the mainland.
"In fairness to mainland and Strathmere citizens, improvements to township services could be made without severing," board member William Brown said.
"De-annexation is not an answer to all the problems," board member Daniel Bready said.
"Residents need to become more active participants in local government."
Mayor Richard Palombo said the unique character of Strathmere, Tuckahoe and a dozen other villages in Upper makes the township a great place to live.
"As a community, we're stronger. To break that bond … would not only be detrimental to mainland residents but also to residents of Strathmere," he said.
The petition now goes to the Township Committee, which likely will reject it as well - unless the mayor and deputy mayor who sit on the Planning Board have a sudden change of heart or all three other members vote in favor of Strathmere's secession. But dissenting votes are rarely cast on the all-Republican Township Committee.
Strathmere residents said the Planning Board's decision came as no surprise and vowed to appeal in court, if necessary. An appeal would go to the Law Division of state Superior Court.
"I was surprised by one thing," Strathmere resident Ed Tettemer said. "After 13 months of testimony, they could not find we made one single valid point."
Tettemer said he was just as determined to secede now as he was when he signed the petition more than a year ago.
"Maybe more," he said. "Because we're right."
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