Garden State’s Green Acres Program Is in the Money

State plans to appropriate $150 million annually over next few years to fund the popular initiative

In a half century, it has helped protect the headwaters of three watersheds in the Pine Barrens. It has preserved thousand of acres of rapidly diminishing farmland in the Garden State. It has helped build urban playgrounds in cities like Plainfield, where on weekends you can find athletes playing cricket, tennis and soccer.

“It’s very well, alive and well,” said Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, referring to the state’s innovative Green Acres program, an initiative that has directly protected 650,000 acres of open space, farmland and other areas in New Jersey.

If all goes as expected, the state will appropriate $150 million this year and in each of the next couple of years to acquire open space and farmland, according to the DEP commissioner.

Martin, appearing before the Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee on Monday in an unusually brief hearing, told lawmakers there is still money available from the $200 million open space bond issue passed in 2007. The Christie administration has yet to tap into the $400 million bond issue approved by voters in 2009, but intends to do so.

The bond issues have proven a popular way of financing the preservation of open space. The public has never voted down a single bond issue involving Green Acres or similar efforts. When approved, the funds are allocated in annual appropriations, usually before the legislature breaks for the summer. The administration has agreed to approve appropriations bills this year that will exhaust the 2007 bond issue and begin spending funds approved by voters two years later.

There is a distinct disadvantage to this approach, however: It costs about three times as much to buy land with borrowed money as it does to pay as you go.

The Kid-Glove Treatment

The commissioner, whose appearance lasted less than an hour and was only gently questioned by legislators, said the department is focusing on three key areas in allocating funding: the Highlands, the Barnegat Bay watershed, and inner-city areas along riverfronts and other locations. In the past five years, the state has acquired 31,000 acres in the Highlands for preservation, Martin said.

The Green Acres program, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is wildly popular. With its public and non-public partners, the program has directly protected 650,000 acres of open space and helped develop hundreds of outdoor recreational facilities in communities around the state. In that span, voters have approved all 13 bond referendums put before them, authorizing $3.1 billion in spending.

Because of the state’s dire fiscal situation, there had been some question as to whether Gov. Chris Christie would tap into the most recent bond issue, but Martin said the governor has approved taking applications against the 2009 bond issue.

The availability of bond issue money makes the prospect that the state will develop a stable source of funding for open space preservation — a top priority of some environmental groups — a more remote possibility.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, noted the level of funding for open space preservation has been slowly leveling off. In the administrations of former Governors Jim McGreevey and Richard Codey, the state was spending about $250 million to $275 million a year, according to Tittel. Under Gov. Jon Corzine, the level of funding fell to about between $225 milllion and $175 million, Tittel said.

“The drop-off shows we need to develop a stable source of funding,” Tittel said.

Compensation for Property Owners

In the hearing, Martin also was asked about finding a source of funding to compensate property owners whose land might have lost value in the Highlands because of the passage of the law to protect crucial watershed areas.

While refusing to put a number on it, Martin conceded “it is certainly a big hole to make people whole.” As to the Highlands law, which Christie has repeatedly criticized in town hall meetings, Martin said the agency was asked by the governor to evaluate the program and make recommendations for improvements.

The state also plans to spend money buying flood-prone properties in the Passaic River Basin, Martin said. The agency currently has $31 million dedicated to Blue Acres acquisitions statewide. Twenty-three of those properties are in flood-prone areas of the Passaic River Basin, according to Martin’s written testimony.

On other issues, Martin and Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) tangled over a new rule proposed by the DEP, which would allow it to waive certain regulations if they were found to be “unduly burdensome.”

Buono took exception to the definition of unduly burdensome. “To me, it sounds like a very subjective analysis,” the senator said, adding she thought the proposal raises some serious constitutional issues.

Martin defended the rule, saying he felt very strongly that the proposal is something the DEP, and possibly other state agencies need. “Nothing in this allows us to relax the high standards to protect the environment,” he said.