In November, New Jersey voters will get to decide whether the state should dedicate some of the taxes businesses pay to preserving open space, farmland and historic sites around the state.
The vote can’t come too soon — the Garden State Preservation Trust — has just about run out of money.
Since 1998, the trust, managed by a nine-member board, has overseen the expenditure of some $2.7 billion to keep green space open, bolster parkland, prevent condos from cropping up in farm fields, and keeping historic sites from crumbling.
According to reports from the trust, almost 390,000 acres of open space and farmland in the state were preserved between the 2000 and 2013 fiscal years.
The biggest beneficiaries have been two of the state’s more rural counties — Sussex, with 44,008 acres saved, and
Hunterdon, with 43,230 acres preserved. Three municipalities have each preserved more than 10,000 acres with funds from preservation trust fund: West Milford in Passaic County, 11,388 acres; Woodland in Burlington County, 10,997 acres; and Vernon in Sussex, 10,738 acres.
But even urban Hudson County has benefited from the program, keeping 45 acres green with state funds awarded during that time span.
The state has given 196 municipalities more than $354 million in Green Acres Park Development Grants during the same time period, according to the trust’s report on that program. That money was used to improve park and outdoor recreational areas, including athletic fields, walkways and boat ramps. Essex County has gotten the most money, almost $80 million, with more than half of that — $42.4 million — going to Newark.
Covering a slightly different time period — 1992 through 2014 — the trust also enumerated how it distributed historic preservation grants. According to a report on that program, the state gave $133.6 million to 468 sites. Essex County again got the most money, $15.9 million, with Newark again the municipality getting the most in the state — more than $9 million for 23 projects. Sussex got the least — $561,000.
Depending on the program, money has been given to municipalities as matching grants, low-interest loans, or a combination of the two.
Voters four times have approved bond issues to fund the preservation programs, the last one for $400 million in 2009.
The question on this year’s ballot — given final approval by the Assembly on Monday — is different. It would earmark $70 million a year initially from the state’s corporate business tax to be used for preservation. That amount would rise to at least $117 million a year, or 6 percent of the tax revenues, beginning in 2019.
That’s less than the $200 million the state had been spending on average on preservation efforts, but advocates still praised the funding and pledged to work for the proposal’s passage.
Open-space preservation has a long history in what is the most densely populated state in the nation, with the genesis of the Green Acres program dating back to 1961.
At its peak, the trust provided $225 million in the 2005 fiscal year. In FY 2013, that amount was down to $180 million — $69 million for farmland preservation, $109 million for open space and parks, and $12 million for a “blue acres” program, begun in FY 2009, to buy flood-prone properties along the Delaware, Passaic and Raritan rivers and convert the land to conservation or recreation purposes. The last historic site grants were awarded two years ago and the next round is scheduled to go out next year, according to the New Jersey Historic Trust’s website.
Click on the interactive map above for a town-by-town and county-by-county breakdown of acreage preserved through the Garden State Preservation Trust.