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Chester County Press

East Nottingham supervisors decline to hold referendum on open space

07/23/2014 05:39PM ● By Lev

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

At the July 15 township meeting, the East Nottingham Township Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to not move forward with a referendum on the township’s open space tax.

Scott Blum, the chairman of the board of supervisors, and Gene Turns and Art Rieck all voted for a more pragmatic approach of maintaining the open space tax with the supervisors deciding annually at what rate to set the tax. The supervisors have the option of setting the rate at zero or as high as one-half of one percent.

The board had been considering putting a referendum on the November ballot asking residents if they favored continuing a one-half of one percent open space tax to support a program that preserves farmland in the community. The township has had an open space program in effect since 2005 after residents approved establishing an open space tax by a slim margin in the November 2004 election.

In order to put the issue back on the ballot for another referendum, the supervisors would have to approve a referendum ordinance.

The July 15 meeting began with the supervisors holding a public hearing on that referendum ordinance. Township solicitor Winifred Sebastian conducted the hearing. Township officials provided some background information about the open space program and residents were given a chance to express their support or disapproval for the referendum that was being considered.

Township treasurer Suzanne Hamlin said that since the open space tax was enacted, the township had generated about $11.8 million in total revenues for the open space program, most of which was collected through the open space tax. The expenses of the program total about $11.7 million so as of now the township is free of debt service payments to support the program.

As a result of paying down the debt, at the end of 2013, the board of supervisors voted to reduce the open space tax to .125 mills for 2014.

Placing the open space tax on the ballot would have taken away the supervisors' flexibility of establishing the open space tax rate. If a majority of the voters opposed the open space tax, the program would have been abandoned completely—supervisors Jane Ladley and John Coldiron favor this path moving forward. But if the voters supported continuing the open space tax as it was approved in 2004 the tax rate would go back up to one-half of one percent. The issue would not be eligible to go before voters again for a period of five years.

When residents had the opportunity to express their views, it quickly became apparent that the consensus among those residents who turned out for the meeting is that farmland preservation is beneficial for the township.

Resident Courtney Peterson talked about important farmland is to East Nottingham. “This is such valuable farmland in this area. The more we use this land in a productive manner, the better the township will be.” She added that everyone in the township needed to be informed about the importance of preserving farmland before making a decision about whether to abandon the open space program.

Isaac Stoltzfus, a resident in the township for 34 years, expressed his support for continuing to preserve farmland.

“I think it’s a very good program,” Stoltzfus said.

Resident Joe Bauer told the supervisors, “I am favor of retaining farmland and open space preservation,” adding that he doesn’t think the question even needs to go to referendum.

Sam Goodley, a township resident and former supervisor, said that he was opposed to putting the issue on the ballot because he sees value in preserving farmland. He said that because of the Open Space Program residents can look at farmland and say that they had a part to play in preserving it forever. If the program is abandoned, Goodley said, those same residents could be looking at a housing development and saying that they will be paying for that development forever.

Joe Scheese pointed out that farmland preservation is a way of controlling residential growth. More residential growth equates to increased traffic, the need for more services, and more children being sent to the school district, all of which translates to higher taxes.

“Personally, I don’t even want to see it on the ballot. How many more kids have to come into the school district before they need another school?” Scheese, a former school board member, asked.

Several experts were on hand to talk about the impact that land preservation can have on a community.

John Theilacker, the associate director of the Municipal Assistance Program with the Brandywine Conservancy said that the organization prepared a Cost of Community Services study back in 2003 when East Nottingham Township was considering enacting the open space tax. He said that farmland preservation pays for itself.

Theilacker’s colleague at the Brandywine Conservancy, John Goodall, said that agriculture remains Chester County’s top industry, and preserving farmland is critically important. Goodall explained that this part of southern Chester County is unique in that it has prime soil that grows really good crops.

“Preservation of agriculture and our way of life is paramount,” said Goodall. “{Agriculture} is the backbone of the county. It always has been.”

Resident P.J. Scheese, who also serves as the township's zoning officer, said that if the supervisors kept the open space program as is, they kept their options open for setting the open space tax rate each year.

Ladley spoke in favor of putting the issue up to vote in November. She said that voters regularly ask her about the topic, an indication that voters should decide the future of the open space program. She said that she saw the open space programs as an attempt at redistibution of wealth.

Coldiron said that he would like to see the open space program halted.

“To me, a lot of farmers have been duped,” he said. “In my opinion, the program is not worth keeping.”

Rieck said that after listening to the residents' comments, it was clear that they did not want another referendum on open space now. Turns said that he agreed with this assessment.

Blum said that when he initially joined the board, he was not in favor of continuing the open space program, but as he learned more about its benefits it was difficult to back a referendum that might end the program completely.

He said that it was good for the supervisors to have the option of simply reducing the open space tax to zero percent if there isn't a need to generate funds for open space in a given year.

In an effort to resolve the matter, at least for the time being, Rieck offered a motion to table the vote on the referendum so that the supervisors could study the impact that farmland preservation has on the township. With an Aug. 5 deadline looming to get this issue on the ballot, this would effectively delay a referendum until at least the spring of 2015, when the Pennsylvania Primary Election would be held. This motion failed 3-2.

But then Blum offered a motion to not put the referendum on the ballot in November. This motion was approved 3-2, with Blum, Rieck, and Turns supporting it.

Blum and Rieck both talked about how keeping the open space tax as it is now gives township officials the most flexibility.

“I like the idea that we can take this down to zero if we want to,” Rieck said.

This decision also allows the township to invest in open space preservation if the right property would be eligible for preservation at some point in the future.

In other business at the July meeting:

Turns championed reestablishing the township newsletter to keep residents informed about goings-on in East Nottingham. P.J. Scheese, who had previously done much of the work on the newsletter, agreed to resume gathering the information, including updates on subdivision information and a local calendar of events, for inclusion in the newsletter.

Blum mentioned one item that might be included in a future newsletter when he talked about how residents shouldn't send anonymous emails or letters to township officials about problems that they are having. Blum said that residents must identify themselves if they have a problem or concern so that township officials can follow-up on the issue.

The East Nottingham Township Board of Supervisors will meet again on Tuesday, Aug. 12 at 7 p.m. in the township building.