BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ. - Bernards Township voters are likely to have a choice in this November's election whether the township should spend the remaining $1.1 milliion in the municipal open space fund to install synthetic turf on two multi-purpose athletic fields at Mountain Park.

Township officials said the cost would not increase local tax bills.

The planned project also would not extend the scheduled ending of township's open space fund tax in 2017, Terri Johnson, the township's Chief Financial Officer, said during a presentation on the proposal at Tuesday's Township Committee meeting. 

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The money also would be repaid through user fees from local organizations and, if there is time possible, from neighboring towns, according to Johnson and Jennifer Gander, the township's director of Parks and Recreation. Nonresident users of the field would pay more, Johnson said. She added, "The user fees would not be onerous."

The total cost of installing turf on multi-purpose fields number three and four at Mountain Park would be $1.7 million, according to figures during the presentation. Bernards Mayor John Carpenter said the balance of the expense likely can be raised by selling some undeveloped properties to Somerset County, to be added to the county's open space holdings.

The addition of turf fields to the township's holdings of athletic fields - which are closed about 15 percent of the time due to weather or wet conditions _ has long been discussed, the two officials said during the presentation. "We think this is a truly effective solution," Johnson said.

Aim to have fields open in 2015

The goal is to install the fields in 2015, with an eye toward having them open for playing by fall 2015, according to the presentation.

During the presentation, Johnson said that the $34.5-million collected for through the open space tax fund since it began in 1998 was used to buy or permanently preserve about 12,000 acres of open space during that time. Those investments include Mountain Park, Whitenack Woods, the Sons of Liberty Park and preservation of the English Farm in Liberty Corner.

However, she said the remaining amount is not enough for a significant open space purchase. "It's very expensive to buy property right now," Johnson added.

A later modification of the open space fund, governed by state law, allows some of the funds to be collected to be used for "active" recreation projects such as athletic fields. The open space tax in Bernards Township currently is 3.2 cents per $100 of assessed property value, according to figures on the Bernards Township website.

Township Committee members express support for putting question on November ballot

The Township Committee must pass a resolution by August 15, in order to place a referendum asking for voter support on the ballot for November's general election. Township Committee members said a resolution officially calling for the ballot question can be approved at scheduled committee meetings on July 29 or Aug. 12, with a preference for action at the first meeting.

"I think this looks like a great solution," said Township Committeewoman Carolyn Gaziano, adding, "I like that voters would be given a choice."

About a half-dozen residents at the meeting spoke in favor of the proposal.

Nathalie Kirkwood said that being able to rely on turf fields will help local sports groups, and their families, better able to plan around athletic events. She said she had spoken with residents in other towns who had installed turf fields, and they "never regretted" the addition to the fields.

She added she believes the turfed athletic fields add value to a town.

Resident Rita Zarabara, who also is athletic director at the William Annin Middle School, said those student athletes will benefit from the addition of the turf fields.

With delays caused by wet conditions, "We are very rarely able to use the [grass] fields before May," Gander said. Turf fields would be available for use in March, she said.

Call for financial details

Resident Brendan O'Connor, while not objecting to the project, said he would like to see a more detailed financial plan for how the fields would be funded.

He also asked township officials to consider whether there would be a better way to use the funds, either through returning the money to taxpayers, or perhaps investing it in needed equipment such as a second wood chipper at the municipal recycling center.

Bernards Deputy Mayor John Malay said the state restricts how funds raised through the open space tax can be used. He said the purchase of a wood chipper, while needed, would be unlikely to gain state approval.

Carpenter said he agreed that additional details on financing should be made available before the committee votes to put the proposal on the ballot. 

Johnson said a more detailed financial plan would be presented before the committee vote on a referendum.

Township Committee meetings are scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. at the municipal building at 1 Collyer Lane in Basking Ridge center.