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Op-Ed: A Straightforward Way to Grow New Jersey, Protect our Future

Voting ‘yes’ on the November 4 ballot initiative will preserve land and water and help engender sustainable growth

Peter Kasabach
Peter Kasabach

The November 4 ballot initiative to secure funding for land preservation deserves a “yes” vote, even as it highlights a larger need to identify sustainable funding for other critical environmental priorities that support New Jersey’s future growth.

I start a lot of presentations stating this simple fact: “New Jersey is the most developed state in the nation.” With Rhode Island a distant second, New Jersey is not likely to lose this distinction anytime soon. I follow up by stating, “And for every decade since its founding, New Jersey’s population has increased.” This is also not likely to change. A third fact almost doesn’t need to be stated: “New Jersey does not have the ability to annex or create new land, so it must absorb this growth efficiently and effectively within its existing borders.”

So how should New Jersey accommodate this steady growth in a state that will be the first to reach “build-out?”

The answer is twofold. First, we must direct growth into the places that are already developed and that have the physical infrastructure to support a growing population efficiently. Market forces are already helping, via increased demand for smaller homes in walkable places where infrastructure such as public transportation, sewers, utilities, and street networks already exist.

The second part of the answer is that we must preserve remaining open land before it is developed. One of the most-used tools for permanent preservation of open space, parks, and farmland has been the outright purchase of land. To date, over 1.5 million acres of open space and farmland -- almost one-third of the state -- have been preserved. Approximately one-third of the state has been developed. According to the draft New Jersey 2013 – 2017 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, New Jersey still needs to preserve another 1.05 million acres of its remaining lands: 650,000 acres to meet future open-space and recreation needs and 400,000 acres of farmland to sustain agriculture as a viable industry. Historically, the citizens of New Jersey have funded land preservation through municipal and county taxes and through state-bond initiatives, which borrow funds that are paid back through general state revenues. The proceeds from the most recent bond initiative, approved in 2009, have been exhausted and the Green Acres and Farmland Preservation funds are dry. Last year, attempts were made to put another bond initiative before voters, but state decisionmakers were unable to reach consensus.

At the ballot box this November 4, the Legislature has given the citizens a new opportunity to support and fund open-space, farmland, and historic preservation, by approving a reallocation of a portion of the share of corporate business taxes that is currently dedicated to various environmental programs.

The amendment would also raise the amount of the dedication of corporate business taxes from 4 percent to 6 percent, beginning July 1, 2019. The Office of Legislative Services estimates that this reallocation will generate $71 million annually through 2019 and $117 million annually thereafter, to be used for the preservation and stewardship of open space (Green Acres), farmland, historic sites, and flood-prone areas (Blue Acres), and for development of those lands for recreation and conservation purposes. Preserving key parcels can also protect our supply of clean water. New Jersey Future supports this ballot initiative as an important means to preserve for our future.

While voting “yes” will continue a 40-year legacy of state support for land preservation, it also highlights a growing dilemma facing New Jersey. How will we fund the critical environmental investments needed to support the state’s growth, in order to keep us nationally and globally competitive? Voting “yes” will secure funds for land preservation, but will also reduce funds for other important environmental needs. To cite just two of those needs:

The pipes and treatment plants for our drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater are aging and need major upgrades. The state’s watersheds must be managed to reduce flooding and maximize water quality and supply. Our inability to monitor and manage watersheds and maintain our water infrastructure will hamper our ability to accommodate future growth as well as meet the needs of residents and businesses.

New Jersey is home to an enormous number of contaminated sites that need to be cleaned before being redeveloped or returned to a healthy natural state. Funds to clean contaminated sites are dwindling at both the national and state levels causing these contaminated parcels to remain unproductive and forcing growth pressure onto sites that are not contaminated.

The preservation funding that is generated by this constitutional amendment will redirect millions of dollars annually away from programs that address these priorities, which reinforces the need for the state to be diligent in seeking out new funding mechanisms to support them.

New Jersey must encourage development in the right places and in the right ways, just as it must preserve its valuable open spaces. Please join us in voting “yes” on November 4 for open-space preservation, and then again as we work to secure sustainable funding for the infrastructure upgrades, water management, and site cleanups needed to create a brighter future in the communities that we now call home and that our children will inherit from us.

Peter Kasabach is the executive director of New Jersey Future, an independent, not-for-profit organization working to ensure New Jersey uses its land wisely.

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