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The Island Divide: Bill Would Combine Island Towns Into One, Eliminate Mainland Influence

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Barrier Island Communities (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Barrier Island Communities (Photo: Daniel Nee)
A revived bill in the New Jersey legislature that would combine most of the length of the county’s northern barrier island has been drawing both support as well as strong opposition in the weeks after it was proposed.

The bill, sponsored Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), is not a new proposal – Gusciora generated a similar controversy when he proposed it in 2008 – but it is one that may draw stronger opinions on either side in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, where new issues have been raised over the role of small towns during large disasters, as well as the domination of island communities by mainland municipalities and high property tax bills.

Gusciora’s bill proposes consolidating Mantoloking, the island portions of Brick, Toms River and Berkeley, plus Lavallette, Seaside Heights and Seaside Park into one municipality called Seaside Township. The bill also proposes merging all of Long Beach Island’s towns into one municipality.

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Lavallette, whose residents enjoy property taxes well below the state average, stands to benefit the least from the proposal, as taxes would likely rise and its small-town government, recognized during Sandy as being more efficient than many neighboring communities, would be eliminated from the map. But in Ortley Beach, as well as other sections of Toms River, Brick and Berkeley townships, an island community free from lower property values on the mainland would translate into tax bills likely cut in half or more, since the tax ratable base would be balanced with similarly high value properties.

Lavallette officials cast the first stone of opposition at the proposal at the borough’s Feb. 22 council meeting, passing a resolution against enacting the bill.

The resolution states that Gusciora, whose district includes towns in Mercer and Hunterdon counties, should not use the island’s residents as “lab rats for his social experimentation.”

The resolution also took issue with Gusciora’s stated goal of lowering local property taxes, instructing the lawmaker to “concentrate his efforts on other issues such as the restoration of lost state aid, the rising cost of health benefit and pension plans and the wasteful spending of state funds.”

Officials in Lavallette said the last time the bill was proposed, hundreds of residents rallied at a meeting against it.

But for island residents whose tax dollars go to mainland municipalities, the bill could be seen as a saving grace from tax bills that often creep into the five-figure range due to the lopsided tax scale. In Ortley Beach, part of Toms River, the “Free Ortley Beach” movement has simmered for years, with residents once approaching Lavallette about combining the two areas. Lavallette was not interested. Now, South Seaside Park, more than a half-hour away from Berkeley Township, where its tax dollars are sent, is attempting to merge with Seaside Park due to the tax inequity. Over the years, just one attempt to free island communities from their mainland masters has succeeded – with a single block, Bay Beach Way in the North Beach section of Toms River, successfully suing to become part of Lavallette.

Toms River fought hard to keep from losing the block, and would likely put up an even fiercer fight, along with Brick and Berkeley, to keep the barrier island communities, which generally consume few public resources but generate millions of dollars per year in tax revenue. After Toms River’s last revaluation, taxes on the island skyrocketed, leading to thousands of tax appeals to be filed as homeowners scrambled to afford the increase.

Then, there is the question of municipal services.

“The issues, and what needs to get done, on the entire barrier island is far different from the issues and needs on the mainland,” said Paul Jeffrey, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association.

For example, he said, Toms River’s fire companies do not respond to Ortley Beach; the township contracts with Seaside Heights.

Though Jeffrey said the community’s relationship with Toms River has become more positive since Sandy struck, high taxes driven by high island property values continue to be an issue weighing on families who are trying to maintain their homes.

“If you could imagine what our taxes would be without the Toms River school assessment, it would be a real shot in the arm,” said Jeffrey, who said the budget woes Toms River could experience could be dealt with at the state level.

Gusciora’s bill has no co-sponsors, no Senate companion bill, and has not been heard by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee, which would have to approve it in order for so much as a chance for it to be voted on in the full assembly. A Senate version would then need to go through the same process, and Gov. Chris Christie would have to sign it into law.

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  • Scott

    This is a common sense idea. I think Lavellette is premature in their remarks. I think a full analysis of the tax impact would show the opposite, there taxes would go down.

  • Marie O’Neill

    How does an assemblyman from Mercer and Hunterdon counties think he knows whats best for an area outside of his jurisdiction?

    • Christine Davis

      Most of the people there are from somewhere else.

  • chris Rhu

    Not sure this will ever pass but any way to get out from under Brick taxes is fine with me. I understand where the Lavallette people are coming from. We just want to enjoy a similar situation. My property taxes have nearly quadrupled since I bought my house from my mother in 1999. We don’t consume a tenth of the resources that the mainland does. Can’t even vote against any new tax referendums. Now have to rent the house rather than enjoy it.

  • Eric Martindale

    There are too many towns in NJ. The best size for a town is 25,000 – 50,000. Anything beyond that is a serious loss in the sense of community, and anything smaller is just inefficient. Time to get the ball rolling. I’ll support this.

  • Christine Davis

    Actually, West Point Island and Westmont Shores left Dover Township to become “part of Lavallette” in the 1970’s as well. Also, the reason that Lavallette was able to recover “Bette” than the surrounding towns was because it had far less damage, and that was admitted by the mayor. Despite the lack of preparation, like blocking dune pathways, among many other things! Combining the island would be a great thing! But there must be a better name.

  • Smiling Sam Buck Savage

    All of the towns are different and have their own flavor.

  • Stephen Melvin

    Hope they do it soon as Seaside Heights mayor and council are trying to give away 1.36 acres of it’s beautiful beach which is part of the public trust to a private company in a shady sweetheart deal.There is a hearing March 22nd at 6pm in The Municipal Complex,2nd Floor ,Municipal Court Room,116 Sherman Ave,Seaside Heights,NJ. Please attend and stop greed carving up our beach for profit, I believe all this wheeling and dealing of the public trusts properties has got the interest of the Justice Department.

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