Fine Print: How to Finance Open-Space Preservation

Tom Johnson | February 1, 2013 | Energy & Environment
With an election looming, neither governor nor Legislature is likely to deepen state debt by backing preservation efforts

The problem: New Jersey is running out of funding to preserve open spaces and farmland. Up until now, the state has borrowed money to finance the effort, with strong support from voters. Given the state’s recurring financial problems, however, both the Christie administration and legislators have been more reluctant to increase New Jersey’s debt level. Many environmentalists say the best answer to the dilemma is to enact a stable source of funding for open space preservation, a solution Gov. Chris Christie endorsed in his election campaign. Most of the proposals, however, include new taxes to support the preservation effort, virtually a nonstarter with the Republican administration.

What is happening: Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the influential chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, is trying to hash out a solution with a package of bills offering different funding options that’s up for discussion before his panel on Monday. The legislation mirrors measures that have been bandied about for months, with no consensus emerging on which course to take.

The options:

S-813: This bill, sponsored by Smith, has failed to win enactment under both Republican and Democratic administrations. It would impose a fee on water consumption, which would be dedicated to open space preservation and protection of farmlands. S-813 would raise about $150 million annually, costing the typical residential customer about $32 per year and commercial and industrial customers at most $50,000 annually. A companion measure (SCR-44) up for consideration next week would constitutionally dedicate the money to open-space preservation.

S-2530: This bill would put a $400 million bond issue to preserve open space and farmland on the November ballot. If approved by voters, it would set aside $218 million in new Green Acres funding, of which $90 million would be used to finance open-space acquisitions; $110 to help local governments preserve and build recreational facilities; and $18 million for nonprofit groups to buy open space. Another $146 million would be used to preserve farmland; $24 million to buy up flood-prone properties in the state’s Blue Acres program; and $12 million for historic preservation efforts. A-3663 is the Assembly version of this bond act.

S-2529: This bill would allocate $200 million a year from state sales tax revenues to fund open-space and farmland preservation. It is a proposal that has been talked about by the Christie administration with various conservation groups, but really never specifically endorsed by the governor’s office. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin told legislators last spring his office would be presenting a stable source of funding for open-space preservation to the administration, but the proposal apparently was shelved when a new state budget crisis emerged.

The prospects: It is both a gubernatorial and a legislative election year, so it is unlikely either branch will back any new taxes or steps to make a looming state budget gap any larger. But given the widespread popular support for open-space and farmland preservation, both among conservationists and local officials, it is probably a safe bet that voters will be asked to approve another bond issue on the November ballot.