The state is running out of money to invest in preserving open space and working farmland.
Yesterday, the state Senate approved a package of bills that would appropriate nearly $109 million to buy up open space and help local communities develop parks, but the appropriation of the funds would virtually deplete a $400 million bond issue approved by voters in 2009.
That raises the question: What’s next?
Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin has told lawmakers that the administration is developing a stable source of funding , but has not divulged any details.
According to conservationists familiar with the plan, however, the DEP is looking at tapping the state’s sales tax, a proposal apparently put on hold because of New Jersey’s ongoing fiscal problems.
“With the 2009 bond funds set to be fully allocated this year, funds are running dry to continue vital preservation efforts next year and beyond,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the New Jersey Keep It Green coalition. The coalition comprises more than 170 park and conservation advocates working to create a long-term, dedicated source of funding for the preservation of open space and farmlands.
“Our position, as a coalition, is there needs to be a long-term funding source,’’ said Gilbert, adding that the group would advocate investing up to $200 million a year in preserving natural resources and farmland, an investment that had been the norm for several years, until recently.
The depletion of the Green Acres bond issue is curbing investments in key areas, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
In the past, the state had spent up to $60 million annually acquiring lands in the New Jersey Highlands, a source of drinking water for millions, he said. In the bills passed yesterday by the Senate, which need to be approved by the Assembly, only about $4 million is dedicated to Highlands acquisitions, Tittel said.
“The bad news is there is no more money going to preservation, unless we see a stable source of funding,’’ Tittel said. “So far, we don’t see it.’’
The three bills passed yesterday by the Senate provide funding for a range of land preservation projects throughout the state, including in the Highlands, the Pinelands, and Barnegat Bay Watershed. They also provide matching grants to county and local governments and nonprofit organizations for open space preservation, and funding for park projects in urban areas, including Atlantic City, Camden, Trenton, and Newark.
New Jersey has approximately 1 million acres (20 percent of the state) that are still unprotected and developable. Many communities still lack access to quality parks close to home, especially in urban areas. Hundreds of thousands of acres of priority lands remain unprotected in the Highlands, Pinelands, Barnegat Bay, and elsewhere, according to the coalition.
With New Jersey projected to be the first state in the nation to completely build out its open space, Gilbert argued it is important for preservation of undeveloped land be a core investment for the state.
“At some point, the state needs to get a more sustainable and predictable program,’’ Gilbert said.