Many shades of green in Moorestown

Posted: August 01, 2011

By Kathleen M. Hart

Controversy continues to rumble in Moorestown over the Township Council's decision to tap open-space funds for a multimillion-dollar upgrade of athletic fields. The initiative has been championed by a task force bearing the slick acronym KIDS (for "Keep Investing and Developing Sports/Recreation"). Who would dare oppose kids, right?

Certainly none of the volunteer environmentalists who spent years securing taxpayer approval of the township's Open Space, Recreation, Farmland, and Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 1998, the fund has collected a yearly property tax of at least 1 cent per $100 of assessed value. It has played a part in protecting more than 300 acres from development.

Seizing on the word recreation in the fund's name, K.I.D.S. and the township Recreation Advisory Committee have argued that the open-space money is fair game when it comes to paying for sports facilities, including artificial-turf fields, bleachers, and parking lots. This might sound like creative accounting. But sports in this town are as big as the median household income (about $109,000), and many parents are cheering the idea as enthusiastically as they do their soccer-playing kids.

The pitter-patter of all those little feet has pounded the life out of two of the township's fields, which flood whenever it rains. Coaches have warned council members that the conditions are "dangerous" and "a disgrace."

But they were countered by two hours of opposition to the plan. One citizen wondered if the voters who supported the open-space fund knew it would end up bankrolling capital improvements for competitive sports. Another said using the money to upgrade athletic facilities would mean forgoing matching county and state grants for open-space purchases, effectively tripling the loss.

But the town solicitor noted that using open-space funds for sports facilities is perfectly legal, and the mayor added that other towns had done the same. He explained that $217,845 in open-space funds would be used "just" to get the engineering and designs done. (I guessed the engineers were the suits standing in the back.)

I listened, armed with my Googled statistics about the health and environmental pros and cons of artificial turf, but I didn't speak. Didn't need to. This appeared to be a fast-track democracy in which the official decisions had been made ahead of the public discourse. The council voted 3-2 to tap the open-space fund. Goal!

Later, a council member was accused of a conflict of interest because his business could benefit from games played on the fields. The township ethics board dismissed the complaint.

Several grassroots groups launched a petition drive, hoping for a November referendum on whether to limit the open-space fund's definition of recreation to passive uses that don't require athletic equipment or facilities. Township officials rejected the petition as defective last week.

I've always loved sports, but it's sad to think that young athletes and their parents don't see the connection between land conservation and the water their kids gulp on the sidelines, or the air they gasp after scoring a goal. And then there are those flooded athletic fields, a reminder that developed surfaces increase storm runoff.

The nation's most densely populated state loses 18,000 acres of open space to development each year, according to Rutgers. Wealthy municipalities like Moorestown should take the lead as stewards of the land - what's left of it.


Kathleen M. Hart is a former television journalist living in Moorestown. She can be reached at hkathleenm@verizon.net.

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