Should funds set aside for open space be used for repairing dams at Strawbridge Lake?
That question met with divisive opinions between council members and a handful of residents during Monday night’s Town Council meeting. The council approved a resolution to spend $22,000 on engineering, design and bid expenses for dam repairs to be paid from the Moorestown Open Space, Recreation, Farmland and Historic Trust Fund.
Before the vote, Acting Town Manager Tom Merchel informed council members and the audience that the dam repairs are ineligible for outside funding.
“At the last council meeting, I promised to look for outside money for repairs,” said Merchel. “There is no available funding for Class III dams.”
Class III dams are structures that would cause little or no downstream damage should they fail, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
At the July 11 town council meeting, Merchel presented results of an inspection of Strawbridge Lake by the Alaimo Group, detailing needed repairs to Hooten Dam, Lower Hooten Dam and Moorestown Dam corresponding with the DEP's requirements. The inspection cost $11,000, which was paid for from the fund.
The open space tax was first approved in 1998, and currently collects 1¢ per $100 of assessed property value.
Most residents on Monday night agreed that the work needs to be done, but some felt council is misusing money set aside as open space funds.
Mark Hines, co-founder of Moorestown Save Our Space (SOS), told council that most voters want this fund used only for the acquisition of open space, not score boards or mowing land.
“Although Strawbridge Lake needs repairs,” said Hines, “this is not what the fund was raised for. We should not be borrowing from it.”
Agreeing with Hines, Monique Begg indicated this fund should only be used to preserve open space in Moorestown and asked council to reconsider proceeding with the project.
“What have we done in the past when we needed money for lake repairs?” said Begg. “I’d like to see other efforts.”
In the spring, Hines and his wife, Elizabeth Endres, after learning that Town Council had approved money from the open space fund to make repairs to and .
On July 19, SOS, along with Concerned Moorestonians and Save the Environment of Moorestown, filed a petition with enough signatures—1,493—to place a referendum question on the ballot in November on the use of open space.
"Recreation shall mean passive recreation, meaning leisure time activities, of an informal nature not requiring athletic equipment or athletic facilities and which are appropriate for sites which are minimally improved or in natural condition," states the petition that the groups filed with the town.
“The petition has been received, and the signatures are being reviewed,” said Township Clerk Patricia Hunt, who has 20 days to certify the petition to make certain all signees are registered voters.
“In the spirit of preserving Strawbridge Lake, I think repairs should be made,” said Endres earlier Monday. “But, Strawbridge Lake was not acquired using open space money. My understanding is that open space funding has been used to mow the grounds at Strawbridge Lake and pay salaries. I don’t agree with that thinking, either.”
These fees should be paid from the town’s operating budget, said Endres.
During the town meeting, Councilwoman Stacey Jordan said she thinks most people would agree that Strawbridge Lake is deemed open space.
“I feel we should use the [open space] funds to repair the dams,” said Jordan. “I think it is a good expenditure for a worthy cause.”
Councilman Chris Chiacchio concurred, “We can repair the dams now without raising taxes. I think we should move forward.”
Mayor John Button said he continues to be taken aback with talk surrounding the open space fund, and that other towns are using open space funds for similar purposes.
“It is far better to maintain affordable taxes,” said Button. “I believe that we are taking appropriate action in using the funds for the repairs.”
Deputy Mayor Greg Gallo and Councilman Michael Testa were not present.
John J. Logue, chair of the Moorestown Republican Municipal Committee, and the group's other 39 members, had a meeting last week to discuss the petition filed surrounding the open space debate.
“Regardless of personal opinions, we [the members of the committee] support the proposal of the people of our town to be heard and clarify open space,” said Logue.
Nearly a dozen members of the committee had signed the MSOS petition, according to Logue.
“We strongly urge our council,” said Logue, “to support the people in Moorestown in clarifying the meaning of open space.”