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Opinion: Federal Funding Is Only One Way to Speed Recovery from Sandy

Lucy Vandenberg | January 16, 2013

Long-term funding for Green Acres and other preservation programs can ease the impact of Sandy, future extreme storms.

In last week’s State of the State address, Gov. Chris Christie called on congressional leaders to swiftly appropriate all $60 billion in federal disaster relief for New Jersey.

New Jersey residents are united in wanting to see these funds appropriated quickly.

New Jersey’s elected leaders also have a unique opportunity to mitigate the impacts of Hurricane Sandy and future storms. How? By creating a long-term source of state funding for acquiring, preserving, and protecting open space, waterways, parks, farmland, and historic sites.

Doing so will also help leverage federal dollars for flood protection.

Unfortunately, the funding stream for preservation efforts in New Jersey has run dry. The Legislature has appropriated the last of the funds from the 2009 voter-approved bond issue that provided $400 million for Blue Acres, Green Acres, Farmland Preservation, and Historic Preservation programs.

New Jersey has been a national leader in preserving open space, farmland, and historic sites, and addressing flood-prone properties. The state's Green Acres Program has worked with local governments and nonprofits to safeguard more than 650,000 acres of land and create more than 1,100 park development projects in every county.

New Jersey’s Blue Acres Program has acquired close to 200 flood-prone properties in coastal and inland areas. Farmland Preservation recently reached a milestone, bringing 200,000 acres of farmland under its care And through the Historic Trust, 477 sites have been preserved.

With the flooding and devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, these programs are more crucial to New Jersey than ever.

Residents whose homes have repeatedly been hit by flooding need options now for voluntary acquisition of their properties. The Blue Acres Program does exactly that, providing for the voluntary purchase of properties and restoring those lands to open space for future flood mitigation. Green Acres funds are also used to purchase wetlands, dunes, and other buffers to essentially absorb the shock from storms such as Sandy and help prevent flooding and damage to private property.

Moreover, open space and farmland preservation throughout the state helps prevent damage from future storms by maintaining natural areas and vegetation that can absorb storm water rather than having it paved over, which will decrease absorption and increase flooding.

New Jersey voters have consistently, and by wide margins, supported sustained funding for these programs over the years. Voters have approved 13 of 13 statewide ballot measures to pay for preservation efforts since 1961.

Last year, the NJ Keep It Green Coalition -- which comprises more than 175 organizations committed to land conservation, urban parks, agriculture, and historic preservation -- commissioned a poll of 600 voters. It found that 75 percent would support dedicating $200 million a year for 30 years to open space, farmland, and historic preservation. Further, 89 percent of participants believe it is important to protect coastal and inland areas from flooding.

Similarly, a recent Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll found that 80 percent of New Jersey residents support using state tax dollars to restore existing wetlands and bays to better absorb storm surges and flooding.

Funding for state land preservation and flood mitigation also has positive economic impacts. Research indicates that every dollar invested in preserving state lands returns ten dollars in economic value.

Public officials and policymakers have a window of opportunity in the coming weeks to take action to create a sustainable funding source for open space preservation, flood protection, farmland preservation, stewardship, and historic preservation. If they don't, funding for these programs will cease to exist.

That would be a shame.

Hundreds of thousands of acres are in need of protection to safeguard our drinking water and sensitive natural areas. There's a pressing need to invest in land preservation along our coast, as well as inland areas prone to flooding, in order to mitigate damage from more frequent and intense storms. Some 350,000 acres of New Jersey farmland are in need of preservation to maintain a viable agricultural industry in the state. And irreplaceable landmarks and historic sites are in need immediate need of restoration and are currently without long-term protection.

There are many possible mechanisms for creating a sustainable source of funding But any solution must include all of the tools in toolkit.

Green Acres, Blue Acres, Farmland Preservation, and Historic Preservation must all be funded together, as they have been historically. This will create the most bang for the buck for New Jersey residents and ensure that funds are available for varied preservation efforts in communities throughout the state.

Second, a long-term funding source is needed: short-term funding mechanisms are not sufficient to meet the scale of the need, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The NJ Keep It Green Coalition supports a 20-year, $200 million per year source of funding, which is less than one percent of the overall state budget and consistent with the amount the state has allocated annually for these programs. The coalition is calling on the governor and legislative leaders to develop a bipartisan, sustainable funding initiative so New Jersey can leverage federal dollars and rebuild from Hurricane Sandy. Doing so would also prevent damage from future storms and continue New Jersey's legacy of preservation and stewardship in every region of the state.

Lucy Vandenberg is the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, a statewide nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation. She can be reached at lvandenberg@plansmartnj.org

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