Public Hearing Tuesday Before Final Decision to Use Open Space Funds for Athletic Fields

Mountain Park, Mountain Road and Martinsville Road, Basking Ridge. Credits: By Linda Sadlouskos

BERNARDS TOWNSHIP - Residents will have an opportunity on Tuesday night to comment on a proposed township plan to use $1.1 million in the local open space fund to construct two synthetic turf athletic fields at Mountain Park within the next year.

Following the public hearing, the Bernards Township Committee is scheduled to vote on whether to make the plan official.

Township voters were asked whether they were in favor of the idea in a non-binding question on this November's ballot. A majority of voters approved the proposal, with local results posted at 3,606 to 3,113 in favor.

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Township officials already discussed the plan publicly earlier this year. The municipal open space tax fund, part of local property tax bills, is set to expire at the end of 2017. Officials said the $1.1 million due to be left at that time wouldn't be enough to make a significant purchase of open space land.

Instead, as per state law, the municipality asked voters if that amount could be spent on an "active recreation" project of building the two turf fields.

The total cost of the two fields would be an estimated $1.7 million, said Terri Johnson, township chief financial officer, said last summer. 

Last summer, when the Township Committee voted to put the question on the ballot, officials said the remainder of the initial cost above $1.1 million would be made up from the sale of parcels of township open space land to be joined with Somerset County's open space holdings. Mayor John Carpenter said $370,000 would come from deal approved by the Township Committee in July to sell a 5.5-acre of property owned by the township, but actually located in Bridgewater, to Somerset County.

Over a period of 20 years, fees charged to users of the field would be expected to repay for the construction costs, maintenance and a replacement of the turf surface of the fields, according to township officials, as well as the explanatory statement to be listed on the ballot.

Johnson added in July,  "The user fees would not be onerous." Nonresidents would be charged more, officials said.

The open space tax of 4 cents per $100 per assessed property value will "sunset," or end on Dec. 31, 2017, Johnson said. The turf field proposal will not increase municipal taxes or delay the end of the four-cent open space tax, township officials said in July.

During an earlier 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.

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 officials said last summer.

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, Johnson and Jennifer Gander, township director of parks and recreation, said last summer.


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