Township seeks cash open space donations

West Amwell received $150,000 and $250,000 in individual donations for its open space program.

By: Linda Seida
   WEST AMWELL — Monday morning, Barbara and Daniel Rattigan were in Philadelphia.
   By that afternoon, they were glad to be back home in their beloved West Amwell. They make the trip three times a week for Mr. Rattigan’s health treatments.
   Mrs. Rattigan described the feeling she gets when entering the township as "really peaceful."
   Her husband said the difference between bucolic West Amwell and bustling southeastern Pennsylvania is "like night and day."
   He added, "This is like Bucks County used to be 60, 70 years ago. If we don’t watch it, it’s (West Amwell) going to be developed or overdeveloped before we know it, before we can do anything to stop it."
   The Rattigans’ hearts clearly lie in West Amwell, and they wanted to keep the township in its present bucolic state. They backed up that desire with a $150,000 cash donation to the township’s open space program.
   They aren’t the only ones opening their wallet to preserve the land. Nor are they the largest donors.
   As the election drew near, and residents were asked to consider approving an increase of the open space tax, an anonymous donor came forward to pledge $250,000 over five years.
   The Rattigans were not limited in their choice of where to live. They could have gone just about anywhere, but they chose West Amwell because of its sense of serenity.
   They own a hydraulic seal company with a client list that includes the Department of Defense. Mr. Rattigan served for almost two decades as a trustee of Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pa., as well as six years as a township supervisor in Lower Makefield Township, Pa.
   The couple could have gone anywhere, including their shore home in Sea Girt. Instead they chose West Amwell. To keep their slice of heaven in New Jersey as heavenly as it is now, they donated $150,000 to the township’s open space fund and preserved approximately 68 acres of farmland.
   Earlier this month, "in response to a solicitation by (committee chairman) Hal Shute, $250,000 was pledged to us by an anonymous resident in five annual $50,000 installations for purchase of open-space easements," committee member Jaime Kamph said.
   "We would like to announce this new pledge and also challenge the other township residents to match it with another $50,000 per year in total individual pledges," she said.
   Within the past two years, the township has pulled in more than $2 million in various forms for its open space program.
   Ms. Kamph said, "These include cash donations, land donations, conservation easement donations and ‘bargain sales’ of land and easements at below market value prices. This is money that can be matched by public funding or leveraged in open-space programs to provide many times the donation dollar amount in buying power."
   Among the donors is Lowell Hunter, a nonagenarian who "has total recall of anything that happened to anybody in the township since he was 10 years old," according to Ms. Kamph.
   "Lowell Hunter contributed $120,000 while preserving all four of his farm and woodland parcels in the township (more than 100 acres)," Ms. Kamph said.
   The open space tax began in 2000 as a 2-cent tax on every $100 of assessed property value. Voters in 2001 approved a referendum asking for the tax to double to 4 cents in 2002.
   Tuesday, voters approved another 2 cents for a total of 6 cents on every $100 of assessed property value.
   Ms. Kamph said, "This is a relatively high open-space tax, but we have had a whole lot of land preserved in the township — 3,700 acres in four years with a relatively small tax base to work with."
   She continued, "We are getting generous funding from state and county Green Acres and farmland preservation programs, but need to have matching funds to access most of this money."
   For property assessed at the township average of $400,329, the tax now totals $240 a year.
   The revenue is designated solely for the purchase of property, easements or development rights for the purpose of open space, farmland preservation conservation, recreation or historic preservation.