Clock Running Out on Funding for Open-Space Preservation Program

With just a few days remaining in lame-duck session, funding for open space preservation looks like it's going nowhere fast

open space meadow
It looks like the lame-duck legislative session will end next week without any consensus on how to fund the state’s program to preserve open spaces, farmland, and historic structures.

Tomorrow, the Senate is scheduled to act on a bill (SCR-165) that would ask voters in a fall referendum to constitutionally dedicate up to $200 million a year from the state’s sales tax to protect open spaces. But even if the measure wins approval, it is not scheduled to be taken up by the Assembly on Monday — the final day of the current two-year legislative session.

Meanwhile, the approach favored by the Assembly late last year — a bill (A-4541) that takes the more traditional tack of asking voters to approve a $200 million bond issue next November — is mired in the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, which is not scheduled to meet on Monday.

The Legislature is controlled by Democrats, but the impasse is unusual because in the past open-space funding has proved to be one of the state’s most popular programs, enjoying broad bipartisan support. Gov. Chris Christie vowed to come up with a stable source of funding for open space during his initial run for office but has never fulfilled that promise. The governor opposes diversion of sales tax revenue to fund the effort.

If no compromise is reached, it means the state, already virtually out of money to preserve historic buildings, open space, and farmland, will have to wait until the next legislative session to deal with the issue. Given the current legislative impasse and little signals from Christie about how he would like the program funded, any consensus could be a long time coming.

The issue has deeply split the environmental community. More than 180 recreational and conservation organizations have lined up behind the sales tax initiative. But other prominent environmental groups oppose the measure, fearing that the diversion of state revenue would lead to cuts in current programs to protect New Jersey’s air and water and to curb pollution.

“Open space funding needs to be sustainable and not be used to cut other programs, which could happen with the sales tax dedication,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club and New Jersey Environmental Federation back the bond issue proposal sponsored by Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), saying it could provide the necessary funding until a long-term solution is reached.

But others argue that the state needs a long-term solution, citing a recent report released by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection detailing a comprehensive outdoor recreation plan for the state between 2013-2017.

At least 650,000 acres still need to be preserved to protect water quality, provide parks and other recreational opportunities, and support the economy, according to the draft report. Between 2008 and 2012, “the state’s Green Acres program received $1.6 billion in requests for land acquisition and park development projects, and awarded $367 million or just under one-quarter of the requests,” according to the NJ Keep It Green coalition, which supports the sales-tax dedication.

“Despite having one of the strongest state open-space and recreation funding programs in the nation,’’ New Jersey has demonstrated a consistent funding shortfall in meeting its public conservation and recreation needs,’’ the draft report said.

In New Jersey, the draft report said there are a total of 1.5 million acres of preserved open space and farmland, making up about 30 percent of the state. There are about 1.8 million acres available for future land preservation and development, the report said.

“The draft report lays out the very significant, long-term preservation needs that remain, as well as the importance of these efforts to the state,’’ said Kelly Mooij, coordinator of NJ Keep It Green. “It also makes clear that a reliable and stable source of funding is necessary to achieve these goals.’’