The Lake Hopatcong Commission took steps toward determining its funding source on Monday, but the differences among the commissioners were evident as the monthly meeting at times became heated, particularly when the subject focused on the possibility of user fees. “We really have to look at where we’re going,” commission chairman and Mt. Arlington Mayor Arthur Ondish said. “We’re at a crossroads.”
Ondish outlined the idea that there would be a “Plan A” that involved receiving money from the state and other means, as a structured budget item through legislation, but that there also needed to be a “Plan B,” which would involve charging fees to those who use the lake in order to help maintain it. “I’ve got to be the bad guy and talk about Plan B,” Ondish said. “There needs to be some way to be self-sustaining, and when I go down to Trenton [on October 16] we need to have a Plan B starting to move…We’ve spent a lot of time on this, and I know there’s a lot of tension, and I hate asking for money, too.”
Some of that tension was clear during the meeting. Commissioner and Jefferson Mayor Russell Felter, who expects to present a business plan to the commission in the coming weeks, to be discussed at the next meeting, said he thinks the commission should exhaust every alternative outlet first. “We need to be thinking outside the box,” he said. “I’m not above seeking out volunteers or [other means]. There’s a lot of things we should discuss first.”
Felter said that he believed the weed harvesters could be run by volunteers, for one thing, and that the scaled-back makeshift weed-harvesting plan that went into action this summer is an example of how the towns could work together to keep the lake management going.
Ondish said he didn’t necessarily want to impose user fees, but said the commission would need to move forward with trying to get legislation to allow such fees, in case they are needed at some point. Hopatcong Mayor Sylvia Petillo, speaking from the audience, told the commissioners that her council had taken a straw poll and were in favor of at least moving ahead with such legislation. “It takes time, and what we’re talking about here is just getting the authority to [put user fees in place],” she said. “We wanted to let you know that we’re ready for Plan B.”
But commissioner David Jarvis, the Morris County representative, said he feared even taking that step. “Once we support enabling legislation, I don’t think there’s any going back,” Jarvis said. “And once they’re in, they’re in.”
Commissioner Daniel McCarthy of Hopatcong pointed out that the legislation might already be in place for such a fee, because in the law that created the commission, one of its responsibilities is to create a funding mechanism. “This is the state telling us to do this,” he said.
The commission ultimately decided to look into whether additional legislation would be necessary, and even if not, several commissioners expressed skepticism that all four towns or both counties that surround the lake would be on the same page when it came to enacting fees. “It’s going to be a nightmare,” commissioner Richard Zoschak of Roxbury said.
Zoschak also echoed a concern that has been expressed by residents in the past, that if a fee were put into place it would disproportionately affect boaters and not all users of the lake. “Everyone should have a stake in this, not just boaters,” he said.
Ondish argued that boaters would be an obvious target for such fees because so many of them come from outside the lake community and they are causing the most damage to the lake environment.
The commission might hold a special meeting to discuss the business plan before the regularly scheduled October meeting. In the meantime, commissioners will review the draft of the plan and plan to come to the table with any and all funding ideas, and any thoughts on the suggestions in the drafted plan.
In regard to other means to fund the commission, Petillo said that Hopatcong was looking into designating employees who would provide services both for the town and on behalf of the commission. “It’s an evolving shared service that we’re just designing,” she said. “We’re willing to do something, even if it’s not the Cadillac of harvesting plans.”
On the subject of this summer’s harvesting plan, commission administrator Donna Macalle-Holly said that the year’s work was done, and that the money to fund the foreman’s salary runs out this week, so the focus is now on getting the machines to the yard in Franklin where they are stored for the winter. In addition, Morris County agreed to defer the cost of disposal of the weeds to an indefinite time.
Jarvis voiced support for a plan that would allow homeowners to pay a one-time fee to “Hydro-Rake” their individual waterfront areas. “It provides immediate tangible results,” he said.
Fred Lubnow of Princeton Hydro, a stormwater-management consulting company the commission works with, said he would recommend doing such a thing on a trial basis in the Jefferson area first. He said it would likely work will with plants that have a lot of roots, such as lilies and tapegrass; but said some invasive weeds would be less likely to be eradicated through such a system. “But I think it’s worth it to do it as a demonstration effort,” he said.
In other news, Ron Sorensen of Lake Hopatcong Marine asked that the commissioners ensure that the lake would be let down no more than ¾-inch per day, starting November 1, even if the weather keeps the water up. “I have customers who are asking what the plan is, and would like to [keep their boats in the water] as long as possible,” he said. “People on the lake are trying to plan, and we need to know you’re going to follow the plan.” The commission, he pointed out, had until mid-December to get the lake down its regular 26 inches. Larry Baier, the DEP representative on the commission, said he was sure that the state would be particularly sensitive to the water-level plan this year, in light of the controversy at the start of this past season with low-water levels.
(Baier, by the way, served his last meeting on the commission on Monday, passing the torch to Kerry Kirk Pflugh, who was in attendance and will sit as the DEP representative in future meetings.)
The water drawdown was once again the focus of comments from Cliff Beebe, who believes the lake should be left at its full levels throughout the year. He presented a letter from the DEP that argued that the water would be dropped annually, “to allow for maintenance of waterfront improvements on a regular and predictable schedule, to avoid ice damage to waterfront structures, to assist in the management of nuisance aquatic weed growth, and to ensure that downstream uses…are not compromised. This plan cannot meet the desires of all users simultaneously, and thus some sacrifice of convenience is required on each user’s part to achieve the greatest common good.”
Beebe pointed out that that defense conflicts with a 1980 Supreme Court decision that ruled that a municipality could not defend itself against a civil rights lawsuit by claiming its officers carried out official policy. “I think under the law you can be held liable for violating our rights,” he said. “The lake should be left full at all times. The less you play with the lake, the better it is.”
A portion of the meeting that was devoted to reviewing the New Jersey boating regulations brought to the table three suggestions from Lake Hopatcong resident John Kurzman, who suggested that bait barges should have to have day markers to help keep them from blending in with the trees on the shoreline; that the weekend no-ski zone in Woodport Cove should be properly delineated to describe the area north of Mason Street Pub; and that personal watercraft should be exempt from the law that doesn’t allow hulls to completely leave the water, as long as they aren’t within 100 feet of other boats or the shore. A state trooper in the audience said he thought the personal watercraft law, as it stands, ensured safety, so the commission decided to only recommend the first two suggestions to the state.
Baier said the DEP would pay the U.S. Geological Service for the gauge measurements at the dam, which will save the commission about $20,000 per year. “This past spring they showed their worth,” he said. “The commission doesn’t have to foot the bill—I will take care of it.”