State Officials Play Coy About Plans for Open-Space Preservation

DEP claims it has ‘plenty of options,’ but won't divulge details to Assembly Budget Committee

State DEP Commissioner Bob Martin
The Christie administration says it is exploring lots of options on how to fund the preservation of open space and farmland, but it is still not offering any details to lawmakers — or to anyone else.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin came under repeated questioning from legislators on the Assembly Budget Committee yesterday, clearly unhappy with the lack of progress in or information about developing a long-term stable source of funding for the program.

With the state’s open-space program virtually running out of funds, finding a way to finance the protection of undeveloped and agricultural land has emerged as a top priority among conservationists and some lawmakers. They are worried that one of the state’s most popular programs will not have the money to meet the overwhelming demand among towns, counties, and others to acquire open space and farmland.

In his initial gubernatorial campaign Gov. Chris Christie vowed to enact a stable source of funding for open space, instead of relying on bond issues, which borrow money to buy farmland and other undeveloped properties as had been the case in much of the past.

While no open-space bond issue has ever been rejected by voters in the past, many lawmakers are wary of putting another borrowing issue before voters with the state’s debt steadily increasing in recent years, particularly to pay for transportation projects.

An alternative to that option has yet to be proposed by the administration. “We’re looking to put together a plan,’’ Martin told the committee when asked about the issue. “There’s plenty of options.’’

Lawmakers seemed not to be satisfied with the answer.

“That’s the same answer we heard last year,’’ said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), the chairman of the committee. “We didn’t have a plan then. We don’t have a plan now.’’

Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), the vice chairman of the panel, agreed. “This is far from over. We’re not as prepared as we need to be,’’ he said, referring to what he called a backlog of projects seeking funding to build parks, preserve open space, or protect farmland.

Martin told the committee the DEP has cobbled together about $100 million to fund projects in the upcoming fiscal year. The money to finance projects is coming from loans for projects that have been since repaid and from projects awarded money in the past, but never moved forward, according to Martin.

In questioning after the hearing from reporters, Martin acknowledged that type of funding will not be available in the future years, but once again refused to elaborate on what kinds of options the Christie administration is considering.

If the administration funds only $100 million worth of open-space projects this year, it will represent a steep dropoff from funding levels in the past, which sometimes ranged more than $200 million annually, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“This is the first governor since 1961 who hasn’t come up with an open-space plan,’’ Tittel said. “What’s happening is the bulldozers are going to win.’’

While Martin would not disclose what options the administration is considering to fund open space, he basically threw cold water on a current legislative initiative that would divert money from the corporate business tax to finance the effort.

A portion of the corporate business tax is now used to fund a range of environmental programs, including fixing leaking underground storage tanks and diesel retrofitting programs to clean up truck and bus emissions.

“That would be a challenge to the department if all that money dried up,’’ Martin told the committee.

In the previous legislative session, Christie opposed a different measure that would have used a portion of the sales tax to fund open-space preservation, if approved by voters in a constitutional amendment.