Commission Looks to Challenges Ahead, Reflects on Busy 2009

A new year is a time to both reflect and forge ahead, and that’s exactly what happened on Monday night at the Lake Hopatcong Commission’s first meeting of 2010, held at Hopatcong State Park, a few hundred yards from the lake’s ice-covered waters. The park, which houses the dam, was also the epicenter of the biggest story of 2009: the low water level that started out the season, an issue addressed by chairman and Mt. Arlington mayor Art Ondish as he recapped the previous year’s activities in his chairman’s report.  That controversy over dam management by the state will be addressed Tuesday in Trenton, when Ondish and fellow commissioner Daniel McCarthy of Hopatcong will join a group of Lake Hopatcong residents and officials from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection. Together the committee will review and, possibly, revise the water-level management plan that is currently in place. “It should be pretty exciting,” Ondish said, adding that the first meeting was about going over basics and “laying some things on the table.” The group will then meet regularly, as often as needed, until a plan that is deemed satisfactory is in place.  Kerry Kirk Pflugh, the DEP’s representative on the commission, said the committee hoped to receive input from the broader community through those chosen to represent the municipalities in Trenton.lhc_-_jan2010.jpg Lake Hopatcong resident Cliff Beebe, who owns Beebe Marina, shared his input on Monday, urging those who were heading to Trenton to respect the “law that’s already on the books” in their meeting. “The lake is to be kept full at all times,” he said. “That should be put on the table and discussed.” Beebe was one of only two members of the public who spoke to the commission on Monday.  Yanique Thorman of the Lake Hopatcong Alliance also addressed the group, asking that they propose a budget to Trenton in the form of a cost-benefit analysis, using figures that show the revenue the lake brings in to state coffers each year. The Office of Legislative Services produced a number that has been regularly cited: $35 million, the estimated amount of money the lake brings into the state through sales taxes and licensing fees. The commission, meanwhile, is seeking about a half-million dollars as an operating budget to fund stormwater management, public outreach, and weed removal.  “That’s got to be the way you approach this,” Thorman said. A budget has already been submitted to the state, but Ondish and other commissioners indicated that, though they had already tried the cost-benefit approach with the state in the past, there’s renewed optimism because of governor-elect Chris Christie’s history in the Lake Hopatcong area. “With this new administration, we have hope for funding,” Ondish said. “Chris knows Lake Hopatcong.” That said, Ondish made it clear after the meeting that the state is in a fiscal crisis, so he isn’t setting his expectations high.  If the state continues to avoid funding the commission, a review of subcommittees on Monday added emphasis to the mission of the funding committee—to be chaired by commissioner and Jefferson mayor Russ Felter—which will seek out alternate funding sources, such as grant money and dedicated portions of boat licensing fees. Ondish also implored volunteers from the community to join the effort.  In fact, a resident representative is still being sought for the subcommittee, and any interested volunteers should contact administrator Donna Macalle-Holly. As per tradition, all of the subcommittees were reviewed on Monday. The aquatic habitat committee, for example, is expected to be more active in 2010 in light of the threat of the invasive water chestnut weed.  Commissioner Richard Zoschak took over as chairman of the bylaws committee, in part because he wants to review the procedure for majority vote (currently, passage requires a supermajority, which isn’t always feasible at low-attendance meetings).  Macalle-Holly said she would like to see the public outreach committee active this year, as she looks to apply grant money toward public education projects.  And the audit evaluation committee will also need to get to work this year, because federal law requires the commission to be audited in light of the number of grants received. Macalle-Holly detailed the grant work completed in 2009, and those in process.  A retention basin in Roxbury Township, two EPA baffle-box projects on Yacht Club Road in Jefferson Township that reduced sediment and phosphorous load into the lake, and a baffle box in Mt. Arlington were all completed last year, and two more projects that moved forward in 2009 are pending final approval from the EPA (in the case of a baffle box in Roxbury, at Singac Road) and a final design (an alternate septic system in Jefferson).  A project in Crescent Cove in Hopatcong is still waiting for DEP approval.  Altogether, the grants used in 2009 totaled $1.6 million, all of which went toward storm water management and sediment and phosphorous removal. Felter said the business plan committee met on Friday to review comments from commissioners and residents and resolve them with the plan.  A final version of the plan—which outlines the number of employees the commission would hope to staff and the resulting operating budget—is expected to be presented in February. “We want to adopt it at the next meeting,” he said. Because not enough commissioners were present at the October weed-harvesting work session, the meeting minutes could not be passed (a supermajority, which requires seven votes, could not be reached because too many commissioners abstained in absence).  Two commissioners volunteered to review the tape of the meeting and vote on the minutes in February, so the minutes will be available to the public at that time. “This was a very important meeting, and the way I look at them, the minutes read differently from any other meeting,” McCarthy said. “It’s my recommendation we send a copy to local senate and assembly people so they can understand where the rubber meets the road.”  (A recap of the meeting is available on Commission Takes Close Look at Weed Removal.) In his review of 2009, Ondish drew attention to the sharp drop in weed removal last year, despite efforts by the municipalities to get a harvest operation going.  In 2009, only 253 ton of weeds were removed from the lake, as opposed to 1,378 tons in 2008 and 1,559 tons in 2007. “We really didn’t get much done this past summer,” he said, adding later: “I have hope that [our funding will not be] a one-time flash in the pan. We spend way too much time discussing where we can get funding rather than following our charter.” In other business:

  • The commissioners expressed some hope that a gubernatorial appointment for the commission—which has been vacant for nearly four years—will be filled shortly after Christie is sworn in as governor. “It’s a shame that that seat has been open for so long,” Ondish said.
  • McCarthy recommended that the commission look into what would be required to get a representative from Princeton Hydro, which implements the commission’s storm water and sediment management projects, and legal counsel in attendance at each meeting.  Kirk Pflugh suggested that the commission look into incorporating meeting attendance by Princeton Hydro into the grants it receives, and said the lack of legal counsel—which is provided by the attorney general’s office—is likely due to a lack of manpower in the state.  Zoschak said the commission should look into hiring its own legal counsel, because even the counsel in place doesn’t have a strong understanding of municipal issues. “They always have to go back to Trenton to get the answer while we’re sitting here like bumps on a log,” he said. “It’s tough.” But Kirk Pflugh said she believed the law would not allow that, as it is a state commission.
  • A resolution to pass the meeting dates for 2010 through January 2011 was passed.  The commission will continue to meet on the third Monday of the month, with the exception of February (the third Tuesday), November and December (the second Monday), and January (the third Tuesday).  Meetings in February, March, and April will be held at the Jefferson Municipal Building; meetings in May, June, and July will be held at the Roxbury Municipal Building; meetings in August, September, and October will be held at the Mt. Arlington Municipal Building; and meetings in November, December, and January will be held at the Hopatcong Civic Center.

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