CORBIN CITY — Just before Route 50 weaves its way south into Cape May County, it bisects the state’s smallest city, a hamlet on the Tuckahoe River that has changed little in its nearly 90-year history — and whose people hope it never will.

“This has been paradise for 76 years,” said Walt Surran, a lifelong resident who owns one of the few businesses there, Surran’s Nursery, with his wife, Ann.

There have been growing worries in recent years that it will be forced to change, though, because keeping the tiny government functioning has required putting a significant tax burden on homeowners in a town with a population of 520.

In May, the City Council formally adopted its Community Vision Plan, a report several years in the making that they hope will guide locals’ goals of preserving its rural and historic character.

The plan outlines all the things residents here say they love: the river, the restfulness, the safety, the schools.

It lists the things they loathe: relatively high taxes caused by remarkably few businesses in town to contribute to the base.

The plan’s key recommendation, to merge with Upper Township, was opposed by the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders, which said providing services for Corbin City would cost far more than it would supply in taxes.

But the study emphasized that the city should not solve its problems through further development and degrading the surrounding environment, leaving few options but for its leaders to continue finding ways to share services.

That makes running the tiny government no small task.

“It’s a lot of juggling things around,” Mayor Carol Foster said.

The effort is worthwhile, people here say, to preserve one of the state’s few truly hidden gems.

Quality of life, at a cost

John Peterson moved to Griscom Mill Road in 1990, looking to raise his family in a quiet neighborhood with access to quality local schools.

Corbin City has all that. More than 70 percent of its 5,063 acres is preserved open space, and a winding river lines it southern border. Its children go to Upper Township elementary and middle schools and then to Ocean City for high school.

The quality of life also comes with a cost. The average homeowner with property valued at $125,139 paid about $4,000 last year. The municipal tax rate is 20.7 cents per $100 of assessed value, while the school rate is $2.45.

“It’s not a terrible price to pay,” said Peterson, 53, Atlantic County’s deputy director of planning, who said he feels it’s worth what the city’s atmosphere provides.

It’s a life Dan McGowan, 85, said he has cherished in the two years since he’s lived here.

McGowan spends most of his time in a waterfront home on Aetna Drive he and his son built. He still owns a condominium on West Avenue in Ocean City, but he prefers to escape to the solitude of the pines and wetlands lining the Tuckahoe River.

Sometimes he goes down Route 50 to L’s Restaurant, by far the biggest business in the city, where locals congregate for a bite, a beer and occasional line dancing.

“It’s nice if you want to go in there, because you know everyone from town,” he said.

Dan Iverson, 69, lives just around the riverbend on Beach Drive, where he moved 11 years ago to likewise get away from the relative commotion of Hamilton Township.

“It’s undisturbed and unconfusing,” he said. “Corbin City is like an unknown little villa.”

Iverson said his former home in Mays Landing was basically the same way when he moved there in the early ’70s, but became dramatically more developed over time.

Now he hopes his new home stays just the way it is.

“Everyone always seems to say, ‘Gee, I hope we can keep it this way forever,’” he said.

Maintaining the vision

The city started working on its Vision Plan after developers proposed building more than 200 housing units there. That scheme has since been dropped, but it scared locals who feared their whole way of life could disappear with one such project.

“That would be the destruction of the place,” said Sally McInernery, 72, a local artist who moved to city when she was 7 years old and was one of the just 30 children a year who went to its long-closed K-8 school.

“You have to look out for all the unintended consequences,” she said. “Even something small can have a tremendous impact on such a small place.”

Foster, who moved to Head of River Road about seven years ago, said not a lot happens in the sleepy city, but when it does, people quickly wake up.

When preparing the Vision Plan, they held meetings to solicit the opinions from the community, and many people turned out to describe where they want their city to go.

The overwhelming opinion was to keep it as close to what it is today, but have the government do its best to keep taxes low.

The city currently shares its courts and emergency management services with Upper Township, and is working on plans to share road maintenance with Estell Manor.

Those efforts and the Community Vision Plan earned the city an award at the 2010 State Planning Conference, which commended the government for its work developing a framework for future planning.

“The city operates on a shoestring budget and faces fiscal crisis virtually every budget cycle,” the event’s program read. “Because of the economy of scale, even a few extra school-age children create the need to raise taxes.”

At the same meeting the city adopted its Vision Plan, it introduced its $670,736 budget for 2010, which includes no tax increase, but also has no raises for its one fulltime employee, Clerk Joanne Siedlecki, and seven part-time workers.

Foster isn’t sure what will be the city’s next step for making services more efficient, and is hoping the state gives small municipalities like it more tools to save costs.

She wasn’t planning on running for re-election this year, but 17 write-in votes in the uncontested June 8 Republican primary put her back on the ballot in November, meaning she may have a few more years of running this miniscule municipality. While New Jersey has a small handful of municipalities with fewer people, Corbin is the state’s smallest incorporated as a city.

“It’s a lot more difficult that running a big city,” Foster said.

Contact Lee Procida:

609-457-8707

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