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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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The Pols Hear the Polls Overdevelopment: The New Top Voter Issue

By Rick Racela

In remarks after being installed for a seventh term on Jan. 6, Freeholder-Director Dan Beyel said he would keep his campaign “pledges” including “protecting our water, soil and air,” and “protecting against overdevelopment.”
I didn’t hear those campaign pledges, but I may not have been listening.
During their reelection campaign, one of a handful of direct mailers put out by Beyel and Freeholder Ralph Sheets stated that “With more farmland and open space than ever, Beyel and Sheets have saved thousands of acres from development.”
“Protecting the environment” has always been a no-brainer. Would you run for office pledged to destroy the environment?
But now we know one source of the concern about overdevelopment.  County Administrator Steve O’Connor told county Chamber of Commerce directors last week that “recent political polling” revealed that overdevelopment is as much of a concern as taxes with county voters.
That is a huge change from a few years ago. A decade ago, only 3 percent of those polled cited overdevelopment.  Now it’s in the mid-30s, right alongside taxes.
In polling for Ocean City, said O’Connor, concern about overdevelopment has surpassed concern about taxes.
I drove through the southern part of Ocean City last week and can understand.
The freeholders may be a lot of things, but they are not stupid when it comes to politics.
The truth is, about the only way the freeholders can protect against overdevelopment is with a proactive Open Space and Farmland Preservation program, approved by voters 17 years ago.
Most development issues are a municipal responsibility, and that’s where the pressure must be applied.
But freeholders, awakened to the anti-development mood, will borrow $10 million this year in order to get more land into the program than the current open space fund has available. This borrowing is a first. Until now, the program was limited to the annual receipts from the one-cent open space tax, currently bringing $4 million a year.
Beyel and Sheets won by surprisingly small, 2,000-vote margins last year.  The pols pooh-poohed that, claiming it was a result of not waging as aggressive (and costly) a campaign as  usual.
But there was more to it than that. The Democratic candidates were as underfunded, undermanned, and ineffective as usual. The election results were a message from the voters.
Pols take election margins seriously and almost certainly viewed last November’s election as a wake-up call.
Less than eight years ago, freeholders, and especially Beyel, enthusiastically supported a  proposed  $20-million, 60-store outlet mall, Cape May County Factory Stores, on the west side of Route 9 across from Lamanna Landscape in Swainton. Proponents argued it would employ as many as 1,000 and be the county’s largest ratable. Local opposition helped kill the project.
The recent embrace of anti-development attitudes is not the only reaction to the election returns and polls.
A freeholder initiative with the unwieldy name, Municipal Public Improvements Joint Venture Program, takes $3.8 million of the county’s $20-million surplus and offers to distribute it in grants to the towns for “park improvements, public waterfront projects, community enhancements (there’s a catchall) and improvements to open space properties.”
Democrats have for several years complained about the size of the surplus, asking why the money didn’t go back to the people. There you go.
Depending on where the money went, this program could have made more enemies than friends.
Voila, there are “financial guidelines” which should ensure that won’t happen. The county apportioned the money to “maximum amounts” reflecting how much the taxpayers of each town contribute to the county budget.
For five towns that would have received less than $50,000 on that basis – Cape May Point, Dennis Township, West Cape May, West Wildwood and Woodbine – the county bumped up the “maximum” amount to $50,000, and sliced that small amount proportionately from the other towns.
Nobody’s complaining so far.  In fact, O’Connor told the chamber he has had more calls on this program than “anything ever.”
The county also took $200,000 from its surplus (rounding off the total taken to $4 million) for funding the arts and cultural organizations.
Four million dollars divided among some 100,000 residents amounts to $40 a person, and the county reportedly considered a rebate program based on population to distribute the money. But the cost of operating it would have whittled away at the amount to be given.
Democratic carping may not win elections, but, when they have a point, it can influence the positions of Republican incumbents, even on occasion, bring them to action.
The community college is the best example. Republican Freeholder William E. Sturm Jr. and probably Republican Freeholder Phyllis Genovese would have lost the election of 1992 were it not for a couple of independents who sliced away from the vote for Democrats Joyce Gould and James Alexis.
Sturm acknowledged that voter perception of GOP foot dragging on the college issue was a key factor. Two years later, Democrat Jeff Van Drew was elected freeholder and made the college his main objective, with the backing of the board.
Local Democrats, no matter how they lag in registration, have a responsibility to offer qualified candidates for every position, from Congress on down.  Win or lose, their choice of issues can inform, educate and awaken the voters. And progress can result.

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