This week, the Hopewell Township Committee agreed to put forth a referendum on the November ballot asking the public to vote on whether to increase the open space tax by 1 cent per 100 dollar of assessed value, from 3 to 4%.
The decision to put forth the referendum was, in part, informed by a presentation given by Eileen Swan, Policy Manager at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, at the June Joint Committee Round-Table on Open Space.
Swan began by applauding Hopewell Township’s efforts saying that Hopewell Township has gone far deeper than most, working with great professionals along with the Township’s own staff, and has amassed a wealth of research and work, including having kept clear track of the allocated funds for open space with “thoroughness that is inspiring.”
But, regardless of the Township’s efforts so far, Swan cautioned that there is a real and immediate need for preservation — and the issue is really about water and not land, as one might assume.
“If you don’t preserve land, your water quality can suffer. And that’s a cost. If you’re not preserving land, you’re risking degradation of your water,” said Swan.
Open space is about preserving a certain amount of land to conserve the aquifers. Swan explained that the specific amount of land needed does not come from a zoning perspective but from a scientific calculation and a safety standpoint — these findings and safety issues are considerations that hopefully guide zoning restrictions.
“The approach to safeguarding residents and preserving plentiful safe water is: good zoning practices, coupled with land preservation,” said Swan.
Hopewell Township has had several studies in the past few decades. A 1993 study was conducted of Pennington-area wells in response to some well water interference, which Swan identified as a warning sign that the aquifers could become stressed. There is was also a 2001 hydrological ground water study assessing the carrying capacity (how much land you need for each well and septic) based on Hopewell homes at the time, as well as the trend to larger 4-5 bedroom homes.
Based on these studies, Swan said that the question now is: How much risk the community is willing to take that it has open space sufficient to recharge the water supply.
The approach Swan recommends is looking at the master plan and working backwards — how big would the “build out” be with the current zoning regulations — and then work to see how many “straws” (wells) are going into the aquifer. This can identify how much open space the Township still needs to acquire and preserve to accommodate the maximum development permissible under the current zoning. If the Township doesn’t preserve? Swan says that zoning dictates the future.
Mayor Sandom also noted, “Whether or not, we can assume there will be development in other areas of the town on private wells and sewers. No one has been doing development in recent years but that doesn’t mean the economic climate won’t change. You want to preserve property before a developer knocks on someone’s door because then you can’t buy it to preserve it.”
While some members argued that taxes are already high and that money should be found within the existing budget, others acknowledged that Township residents receive exemplary services and that the individual budget items would not benefit from budget reduction.
The decision to put the referendum on the ballot was approved with Committee Member John Hart casting a dissenting vote.