Council Approves $1.5 Million from Open Space Fund for Fields
Moorestown council voted 3-2 in favor of dipping into the Open Space Trust Fund to pay for improvements to Wesley Bishop, while a potential lawsuit looms in the background.
CLARIFICATION: Township attorney Thomas Coleman, noting he is "also a taxpayer of this township," told council he would handle the litigation related to the Open Space case pro bono.
This information was accidentally omitted from an earlier version of this story. Patch apologizes for the oversight.
After all this time, it ended more or less how you expected it to end.
Following months (and months) of debate and indecision, township council voted 3-2 Monday night to use $1.5 million from the Open Space, Recreation, Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund for improvements to Wesley Bishop North.
The vote followed more than an hour of public comment—mostly in opposition to the use of the Trust Fund—and discussion among members of council, including a brief presentation from attorney Jeffrey Baron, who announced he planned to take action against the township in Superior Court to resolve the issue.
Baron, representing members of STEM (Save the Environment of Moorestown) and various other municipal groups and individuals, who he did not name, told council it was “unlawful” for the township to use the Trust Fund for improvements at Wesley Bishop because the field wasn’t acquired with money from the fund. Baron, of the Baron & Brennan law firm in Voorhees, submitted a letter to the township in May threatening a lawsuit over the use of the Trust Fund.
Reading from the interpretive statement included on the 2007 ballot, in which voters again approved the levying of the Open Space tax, Baron said the use of the Trust Fund is for “‘the acquisition of recreation and conservation, including the development and maintenance of such acquired lands.’
“You can only use this money for lands you acquired with Open Space funds. I’m sorry to tell you that, but that’s the only reasonable interpretation of that ordinance … You’re stuck with that. So respectfully, you can’t use these funds for what you’d like to use them.”
Baron said he would file a “prerogative writ” in Superior Court today, asking for an interpretation of the law and the allowed uses of the Trust Fund. He also warned council he would file an injunction to keep the township from spending money from the fund until a decision is rendered by a judge.
“I would like to think you would have the respect for law that you would not do anything with these properties until a judge told us what can be done on these properties,” said Baron.
However, Mayor John Button and councilmen Greg Gallo and Mike Testa chose not to heed Baron’s warning and voted in favor of dipping into the Trust Fund—which presently has a balance of nearly $2 million—to fund improvements at Wesley Bishop North, including the installation of an artificial turf field, and improvements to the parking lot and drainage.
Gallo worried council would set a dangerous precedent if it held off a decision based on the threat of a lawsuit.
“We’re now into a realm where anyone who wants to prevent one of the allowed uses is going to throw this or future councils into paralysis (with the threat of a lawsuit),” he said. “We’re opening up anything to be challenged.”
Button and Testa also reiterated their belief—based on township attorney Thomas Coleman’s guidance—that the Wesley Bishop North project was a legal and worthwhile use of the Trust Fund.
Councilwoman Stacey Jordan, who has been the voice of dissension on the issue alongside Councilman Chris Chiacchio, asked township manager Scott Carew for his 2 cents.
Carew explained, while he believed the project should be done, he preferred bonding the project, rather than dipping into the Trust Fund. While it was a topic of discussion early on, council was never able to come to a consensus on bonding.
Carew said he was also concerned about the potential for a lawsuit—and an injunction that could hold up the necessary appropriations—as well as the effect the project would have on the Trust Fund.
“Tom’s (financial officer Tom Merchel) projections show it wouldn’t totally deplete the fund, but it certainly affects it negatively,” said Carew.
According to Merchel’s projections, the balance of the fund would remain roughly in the $500,000-600,000 range for the next decade, if the township used it to pay for the Wesley Bishop North and South projects. His projections don’t include matching contributions from the state after 2012, nor do they include revenue from sports club contributions replenishing the fund.
Council tabled a decision on using the fund to pay for $405,000 in improvements to the South field, based on concerns over the adverse effect the project would have on teams that use the field.
In light of the vocal public opposition to the use of the Trust Fund and the lawsuit cloud hanging over the township, Jordan questioned the timing and necessity of the action.
“I’m just still puzzled why we’re doing this now,” she said.
Chiacchio, not for the first time, suggested an alternative: a new referendum to clarify the use of the fund. The recommendation was put to a vote, with Jordan backing the measure as well. But Gallo abstained and Testa and Button voted “no,” so the motion died.
Several members of the audience spoke up in opposition to the use of Trust Fund, including Democratic council candidate and Moorestown Save Open Space co-founder Mark Hines, who said, “I’m trying to avoid emotional language, but I feel this is a power grab … There are three people on council who have lost touch with what the people want.”
Republican candidates for council Phil Garwood, Victoria Napolitano and Pete Palko issued a statement of their own following the meeting, decrying Button, Gallo and Testa for “their disregard for the voters and taxpayers of Moorestown … We feel this spending is unacceptable and out of step with the will of the voters of Moorestown.”
In the end, council—perhaps not surprisingly to those who've followed the Open Space-fields rigmarole—split 3-2 in favor of using the fund, with Button, Gallo and Testa voting "yes," and Chiacchio and Jordan supplying the "no" votes.
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