State Puts Squeeze on Funding for Open-Space Preservation

New program is shadow of former funding, with deeper cuts to come in second year

The state expects to spend $100 million in the coming fiscal year to fund projects to preserve open space and farmland, at least $50 million shy of what New Jersey traditionally spends annually on the popular program.

In the fiscal year following that, the funding will drop off even more dramatically, with only $40 million — at most — available to fund open-space preservation, parkland projects, and buyouts of flood-prone properties, according to New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin.

The total does not include $250 million in federal funds that may be available to help buy out flood-prone properties in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Martin said.

The steep decline in funding reflects the exhaustion of a $400 million bond issue approved in 2009 to pay for open-space preservation and a failure of the Christie administration to enact a stable source of funding to finance that effort, despite a campaign pledge by the Republican candidate to do so.

It is a promise repeated by Martin two years ago, appearing before the same Assembly Budget Committee, when he testified then, saying the administration would unveil a stable source of funding for the effort within the next month or so.

“We must consider new ways of doing things and develop a new mode to make our parks self-sustaining,’’ Martin said in written remarks not delivered orally in his annual appearance before the Assembly budget panel. It has yet to happen.

Yesterday, Martin was much more circumspect in responding to questions from lawmakers. Asked about what the administration plans to do to develop a stable source of funding, the commissioner deflected the questions. “That’s the governor’s prerogative at this point,’’ he said.

In the DEP appearance, lasting just longer than an hour, Martin faced few probing questions, a contrast to past meetings when the agency was frequently criticized by lawmakers over its regulatory oversight of business and industry.

The issue is an important one for many conservation groups, which have been lobbying for a stable source of funding for open space and farmland preservation. They have advocated dedicating at least $200 million from the sales tax to support open-space preservation, an idea encompassed in a bill (S-2529) under consideration by the Legislature.

Some environmentalists were doubtful a solution could be reached,

David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which endorsed Gov. Chris Christie in 2009, noted the candidate pledged to fund open-space efforts at $200 million a year.

“As long as he is high in the polls, he does not need to fund open-space spending,’’ Pringle said. “The governor is more concerned with getting a tax cut than coming up with the money for open-space funding.

Kevin Roberts, a Christie campaign spokesman, said the governor is supportive of these programs. “It’s a policy decision under review by the governor’s office,’’ he said. “The governor supports land preservation.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a frequent critic of the Christie administration, disputed that view. He argued that the level of state funding for open-space preservation is at a two-decades low.

In other issues, Martin downplayed the diversion of millions of dollars in DEP funding to the general fund, a practice the Christie administration and legislators often employ to plug holes in the state budget. He argued it would have no impact on the quality of the state’s environmental programs.

The diversions within the DEP include $40 million from an expected settlement with polluters who contaminated the Passaic River; $21 million from the state’s recycling fund; $5 million from a fund to close abandoned garbage dumps; and $16.3 million from a fund to clean up hazardous spills.