Bipartisan Coalition Wants Open-Space Question on November Ballot

Voters have consistently backed preservation programs -- but will NJ’s economic woes change their minds?

open space
A coalition of environmental groups with bipartisan support from legislators yesterday kicked off an effort to convince voters to back a ballot question that would provide a stable source of funding for open space.

The proposal, to be voted on this November, would dedicate at least $71 million each year out of the existing corporate business revenues to preserve undeveloped land, farmland, and historic structures and protect flood-prone areas.

Long a goal of open-space advocates, the measure, if approved, would provide a steady source of funding to protect open space at a time when money for such projects has been virtually exhausted.

While open-space ballot questions have always been approved in the past — 13 times in more than four decades — New Jersey’s current economic climate and the state’s fiscal problems pose more uncertainty about how the proposal will be received by voters this fall.

Gov. Chris Christie, who promised to create a stable source of funding for open space during his initial gubernatorial campaign and never delivered, told reporters last month it would be irresponsible to earmark money in this way, apparently referring the state’s recurring fiscal problems.

But open-space advocates argued otherwise.

“This desperately needed source of long-term stable funding will go a long way toward protecting some of this state’s best assets,’’ said Sen. Christopher “Kim’’ Bateman (R-Somerset), a cosponsor of the bill.

“Clean water, parks, farms, and open space are bipartisan issues that we all should be able to support –regardless of our political affiliation– for the sake of our children and grandchildren,’’ he said.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the measure, agreed. “It is imperative to vote “yes” on November 4 to protect the state’s drinking water and last remaining open spaces for the health of our communities and future generations,’’ he said.

Under the ballot question, preservation programs would receive about $71 annually for four years, and then up to $117 million a year. Initially the ballot question, if approved, would allocate 4 percent of corporate business tax revenues to open-space initiatives. Eventually, the amount of money dedicated to preservation would rise an additional 2 percent a year. The program would last 30 years, and spend about $4 billion.

If approved, the fund would provide approximately $30 million annually to programs to improve water quality, remove underground storage tanks before they leak, and clean up polluted sites.

Critics say the state cannot afford to divert the money.

“It’s also amazing how we can find $4 billion in the budget for open space but can’t find the money to make the required payment into our pension system or for tax relief,’’ said Daryn Iwicki , state director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

Some supporters of the measure express concerns about its passage.

“In an off-year election, it could have an impact with people who are against government spending,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “If it loses, the consequences could be devastating — not only for open space, but other environmental issues.’’

But Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green Coalition, representing more than 185 park and conservation groups backing the measure, remained optimistic. “We think the long history of voter support will continue to be there,’’ he said.

According to a report by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, more than 650,00 aces still need to be preserved to protect natural and water resources and provide recreational opportunities to a growing population. At least an additional 350,000 acres of farmland must be preserved to maintain a viable agriculture industry, according to the state Department of Agriculture.