Strathmere awaits judge’s ruling on whether it can secede from Upper Township

A view of the northern section of Strathmere from the bay side.

UPPER TOWNSHIP

— The busiest place in Strathmere on Wednesday afternoon was the post office, where a trickling of year-round residents picked up mail and where Herb Hollinger, 91, proudly exhibited photos of his great-grandchildren.

The community’s only traffic light blinked yellow and red. The red-roofed United Methodist Church’s chimes sounded at noon through the two-mile-long beach town — although the seasonal church closes in early October.

The quiet gives little indication that a big decision is near.

But a Superior Court judge will soon decide — possibly within the next week — whether Strathmere must remain a part of Upper Township or whether it can split from the mainland municipality that governs it.

“I personally feel it could go either way,” said Hollinger, a retired mechanical superintendent who has had a home in Strathmere since 1962 and lived here full time for 26 years. “There always has to be a winner and a loser.”

The decision could be the first victory for a large group of property owners pushing for secession. Or it could help the township, which stands to lose a substantial portion of its ratable base, finally put a four-year-old issue to rest.

“We have been patiently waiting,” said Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo, who did not want to comment until the court decision.

On Aug. 23, Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong heard arguments from Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach on why they want to leave Upper Township.

Led by their attorney, former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, they said the township has inadequately provided public safety, public works and beach protection.

“It’s a lovely town that hasn’t been taken care of by Upper Township,” Hollinger said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Upper Township officials argued the group just wants to leave to save money on taxes. The value of property in Strathmere, which is almost entirely beach-block or bayfront, has grown substantially over the years.

If Strathmere left, the township would lose 17.5 percent of its nearly $2.4 billion tax base and nearly $4 million per year in school taxes, township Solicitor Dan Young said in court.

“The township expects a favorable decision and hopefully that will resolve it,” Young said this week. “We’re just as anxious to hear the decision as anyone else.”

The August court hearing followed nearly 14 months of Upper Township Planning Board hearings and a subsequent denial by Township Committee in 2009 on Strathmere’s request to leave. Strathmere has indicated it wants to join neighboring Sea Isle City.

“If Strathmere wins in court, the door is open to approach Sea Isle City,” said lawyer Mary D’Arcy Bittner, who has represented the Strathmere group.

Florio could not be reached at his office on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Armstrong indicated in August a decision could come by late October. Either side can appeal to a higher court.

Outside the post office on Wednesday, Ted Bamford, 84, talked about his 47 years with a home in Strathmere.

A retired foreman for a division of Ford Motor Co. that made electronics, Bamford lives on a fixed income of Social Security and a pension that comes to about $30,000 a year, he said.

He never made $10 an hour in his life, but now he pays nearly $12,000 in taxes, he said. Without financial help from his children, Bamford would have had to move, he said.

“I really don’t want to leave Upper Township, but for how much money I’d save in my taxes, I have to,” he said of secession. “They have ignored us over the years.”

In Cape May County, Avalon Manor tried to split from Middle Township and join Avalon, but state courts denied their attempts in 2003 and 2004. The state Supreme Court did not hear an appeal.

Hollinger, who also supports Strathmere’s secession, said he awaits the upcoming court decision like many in the area.

“There’s a lot of interest in it,” he said.

That’s not necessarily the case in neighboring Sea Isle City, said Mayor Leonard Desiderio, who said the dispute between Strathmere and Upper Township has not been a topic of discussion in the city.

“Usually the red light being out is a topic of discussion,” he said.

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