The Land of Many Little Towns: West Milford, The Story of a Suburb, Ch. 9
The Land of Many Little Towns: West Milford, The Story of a Suburb, Ch. 9
Modern-day urban planners decry the fact that New Jersey has 566 municipalities, all doing things their own way. They blame this architecture for the fact that New Jerseyans pay high property taxes. Of course, they don’t mention how much of those taxpayers go to support the state’s blighted cities, who complain of having practically no tax base. Obama leads the charge in accusing whites of “racism” in their flight from the cities. He has backed the creation of a non-profit group called “Building One America” to combat this problem.
Building One America is the community organizing arm of the redevelopment effort. Stanley Kurtz, in his book, “Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities,: notes: “The New Jersey Regional Coalition, a Gamaliel affiliate and now the core component of Building One America, pushed for regional tax base sharing in the New Jersey legislature in 2006” six years ago. So there’s a community organizing arm and there’s a political arm.
Unlike New York State, New Jersey can’t simply legislate its 566 communities out of existence with a wave of its magic gavel. The state must persuade those 566 communities to voluntarily surrender their autonomy. It’s called “home rule.” The plan is called The New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan. David Rusk himself, author of “Cities Without Suburbs” has personally met with towns up and down the state trying to convince ecology-minded citizens to sign on.
In 1898, New Jerseyans looked on in horror as the New York State legislature abolished all the municipalities of New York and Richmond counties, the western portion of Queens County (ultimately abolishing it entirely), and the city of Brooklyn, and consolidated into one city of New York. You can find the remnants of these towns and villages on current maps, listing them now as “neighborhoods” – Astoria, Richmond Hill, Jackson Heights, Auburndale, Hillcrest, Forest Hills, Arlington, Bedford Park, Bushwick, Canarsie (the name of the Indian tribe that sold Manhattan to Peter Minuit), Morris Park, Rosedale, Schuylerville. It’s a long list.
For all the consolidation, New York City still has financial problems and wealthier, Conservative residents are fleeing its tax rate, just about the highest in the nation, save for New Jersey itself.
West Milford became a municipality by an Act of the New Jersey Legislature on March 10, 1834, when it was formed from the westernmost portions of both Franklin Township and Saddle River Township, while the area was still part of Bergen County. On Feb. 7, 1837, Passaic County was created from portions of both Bergen County and Essex County, with West Milford as the western end of the newly formed county.
The town was actually called “New Milford.” The same Dutch settlers and former Puritans from Newark also built a town of New Milford in eastern Bergen County. After both New Milfords applied for post offices in 1828, a clerk in Washington, D.C. is said to have approved the Bergen County application first and assigned the name “West Milford” to the New Milford in then-western Bergen County in order to distinguish between the two locations.
Many old name towns were absorbed into the 80 square mile township including Postville, Utterville, Corterville, Browns, Awosting, Echo Lake, Macopin, Charlotteburg, Clinton, Moe, Upper Greenwood Lake, Oak Ridge aka Oak Hill, Newfoundland, Apshawa, New City, and Smith Mills, Germantown and Hewitt. Borderline towns were split between West Milford and neighboring Rockaway and Jefferson Townships. Some towns made up Ringwood Township, including Boardville, Monksville, Stonetown aka Mosstown, Midvale, Haskell, and Wanaque. After New York’s consolidation, towns began to look into incorporation as a means of protecting their autonomy, an act that the New Jersey legislature approved, but which regional advocates derided as “boroughitis.
New Jersey Transit’s bus route No. 196’s sign does not list as its destination “West Milford”; it lists “Newfoundland.” If you ask a West Milford resident where they live, unless they live in or near the actual West Milford town center, they’re as likely to tell you they live in Macopin, Newfoundland, or Apshawa, as to say they live in West Milford Township; for them, that’s an afterthought.
Still, as large as the township is (the tenth largest in New Jersey), its population of over 25,000 still manages to stick together on certain issues. When Gov. Christie came to the town this week, 700 residents squeezed into the West Milford PAL Center a piece of their minds.
The subject was the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act . The meeting was so crowded, I wasn’t allowed near the site, even though I’d reserved a seat and friends were holding my place for me.
According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, “Judy Ziegler, a 69-year-old restaurant owner in the Passaic County town, said she was frustrated over her property tax bill and the fact that the 2004 law was limiting development.
She said the money was going toward subsidizing water for some of the state’s urban residents who could afford to pay an extra dollar or two if they “can sit out on their stoops in the summertime, smoking pot, drinking booze, collecting food stamps.”
“The [politically-incorrect] comment drew loud applause from the town hall crowd, but Christie quickly cut in and criticized it.
“It is unfair, with all due respect, to characterize every person who lives in Newark, which you just did, as sitting on their stoop smoking pot, drinking booze and collecting food stamps." Christie said.
He then told the largely friendly group he understood Ziegler’s complaint: "I hear them and we’re going to try to help you fix them. But we are not going to fix them by scapegoating, because when we do … we lessen each other."
“After the event, Ziegler said she didn’t mean to denigrate all Newark residents.
“I wasn’t allowed to finish because he was offended right away and I apologize, because I wasn’t referring to everyone in Newark," she said. Once again, the inconvenient truth got steamrollered and the resident had to apologize for it.
Ziegler said one of her customers, a Democrat, told her Newark residents could not afford the extra charge because they are “downtrodden” and that she didn’t realize “how hard they have it.”
Still, Ziegler held her ground as best she could.
“Yes I know a lot of them do have it hard," she said. “But we have it hard in West Milford, too. We’re hard-working citizens. A lot of those people are hard-working, but they’re also getting paychecks. So paychecks, welfare, whatever they’re getting to sustain themselves. Whatever they have, that dollar or two a month is worth getting that water you’re getting from us, and why should our taxes go up $16,000, $18,000?”
“Christie is well-known,” the Star-Ledger cheered, “for his harsh rhetoric aimed at those with whom he disagrees. But Patrick Murray, a pollster at Monmouth University, said his words today were not out of character, noting that in the past he had spoken out against conservative pundits who criticized his appointment of a Muslim judge.
“Christie understands that the politics of division don’t help New Jersey Republicans,” Murray said, “the politics of division in terms of race, class, those types of things.”
“What was clear was the level of dissatisfaction among suburban and rural residents in this northern part of the state, where towns have had to limit development because of the Highlands Act. The law was intended to preserve the primary supply of fresh water for more than 5 million New Jersey residents.
“Ziegler’s comment came after Christie said the state was selling property owners short by not living up to its promise to compensate them for land lost as a result of the law. He said there was no chance of getting the law repealed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature, whose members ‘in the main took property from Republican areas to benefit Democratic areas.’
“’That’s why they have a new focus on trying to ease some of the restrictions where appropriate and also giving recommendations to me for a new funding recommendation on being able to compensate people in a way that Gov. McGreevey promised,’ he said.
“Environmental groups have criticized Christie for appointing political allies to the Highlands Commission who they say have little experience in the environment and are trying to dismantle the law from the inside.
“What Governor Christie is doing is trying to repeal the Highlands Act through his appointments and he is siding with land speculators and developers,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said.
Proponents of regionalization call such opposition “borough fever” or “boroughitis.”
Boroughitis was a political phenomenon that spread throughout in the late 19th century, which led groups of residents to unite to form boroughs from within and among the many townships that were the prevalent form of
government at the time. The basis of the phenomenon were
major changes to the borough form of local government in the state that allowed
boroughs to easily obtain independence without approval from the New Jersey Legislature and provided
boroughs formed from more than one township to be entitled to a seat on the
county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders.
In 1894, the state permitted boroughs to be formed by petition, without requiring a special act of the legislature, as had been required before and since. This process was widely used, particularly in Bergen County, “that being the year the county went crazy on boroughs,” according to the book, “A History of Bergen County.” Today, 56 of the 70 municipalities in Bergen County are boroughs.
Communities often were motivated by financial issues; Chatham broke loose of a township it had joined in 1806, over the financing of gas lighting in the town. The town wanted gas lighting, but the township government refused to finance it. First the community reorganized as a village (as it had been founded in 1710 under colonial English provincial rule), but, when the borough form was introduced through legislation, the citizens of Chatham immediately voted to adopt that new form of government.
This wave of municipal reformations was fomented by legislation that allowed a borough to be created by a referendum with no further legislative approval required. In 1875, only 17 boroughs had been created, and half of those had been dissolved or elevated to cities, but the prevalence of boroughs exploded, so that they are now the most common type of municipal government in New Jersey, accounting for over 200 of the 566 current municipal governments statewide. Notice here that the accusation of over 566 borough municipalities is inaccurate.
Early in 1894, the N.J. Legislature passed a school act which had each township constitute a separate school district. Taxpayers were required to pay off any existing debts of the old districts and all future school-related debts of the new districts. Exempted from this provision were “boroughs, towns, villages, and cities.” An amendment to the Borough Act, passed on May 9, 1894, allowed for the creation of a borough from parts of two or more townships, and allowed these boroughs created from multiple municipalities to have their own representative on the County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Newspapers of the time, liberal criticized the will of the voters. On June 14, 1894, The Hackensack Republican noted that “borough mania continues to spread in Bergen County and the possibilities are that it will not be checked in some time.”
The citizens responded to the legislation in 1894, and the shift to boroughs was in full force, as scores of new boroughs were carved from townships. The borough-formation pace slowed down when new legislation was passed mandating that boroughs could have their own school districts only if they had 400 children within their boundaries.
The formation of new boroughs continued after 1894. The borough remained the most popular form of government for new municipalities, and most governments formed into the early 20th century used the borough form. Pompton Lakes took immediate advantage of the new law and incorporated in 1894.
Legislation was drafted to effectively repeal the Borough Acts of 1882, 1890, 1891 and all of their supplements. Under the Incorporation by State Act of March 26, 1896, “No borough or village shall hereafter be incorporated in this state except by special act of the legislature, and every borough or village so incorporated shall be governed by the general lawws of this state relating to boroughs
state relating to boroughs or villages respectively.” With the formation of new
But boroughs were formed all the same. Bloomingdale, just south of West Milford, was incorporated
in 1918, along with Wanaque and Ringwood when was Pompton Township was broken up. The
borough of Butler was incorporated earlier, in 1901. The anti-boroughists prided themselves on
putting a stop to all this “boro”-ing. But the love of freedom, however, and independence is hard to
quell, once it rises into a flood.
Groundbreaking on the George Washington Bridge began in October 1927 and the bridge was dedicated
on Oct. 24, 1931. Despite the best efforts of progressive planners, thanks to this link between New
York and New Jersey, the suburbanites were coming.
But so was a great flood of water.