Now Comes the Hard Part: Divvying Up Funds for Saving New Jersey’s Open Space

Open-space preservation was a divisive issue among environmentalists – and deciding what programs get funded could prove equally divisive

open space
The state now has $71 million to pay for open-space preservation, thanks to voter approval of a constitutional amendment last month to replenish a fund that was virtually bankrupt.

Now comes the hard part: divvying up where the money should go, especially since it is far less than the $200 million the state typically spent each year in the past on open-space and farmland preservation programs.

It is probably going to be a nasty fight.

With much less money available, competing interests will lobby hard and disagree loudly for a bigger share of the smaller pot. They range from local and county governments, to nonprofits involved in conservation, to state environmental officials who want to maintain capital spending for parks and forests.

“I think some very hard choices have to be made,’’ said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition and a member of the NJ Keep It Green, which lobbied hard for passage of the constitutional amendment.

Initially, the amendment will divert $71 million annually from the corporate business tax, but beginning in 2020, the amount would increase to at least $117 million and could rise higher if revenue from the tax rises.

The new fund is likely to pit some environmental groups against other conservation organizations, both of which have different priorities as to where the money should be spent. Those differences probably will be aired at a hearing before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on Monday, when the panel holds a hearing on how to implement the constitutional amendment.

The disputes have been festering ever since the ballot question won approval from the Legislature, primarily because the money from the corporate business tax would be diverted from existing programs at the state Department of Environmental Protection, including money for state parks.

“I think it’s going to be a pretty big battle,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which wants to ensure more money from the fund goes to urban areas for parks and recreational facilities. He and others also question whether some of the limited funds should be devoted to nonprofit groups for stewardship of open spaces — an issue many other conservation groups endorse.

Tittel and others argued urban areas should get a big portion of the fund to create more open spaces and parks,

One issue the environmental community seems to agree on is that a portion of the funding from the new program should be allocated to capital programs for state parks and forests, but to what extent is a source of dispute.

“I’m sure there are going to be a lot of differences on how to allocate the fund,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green. “There does not need to be a wholesale rethinking of this.’’

In the past, the state’s funding priorities have focused on open space and farmland preservation, as well as protecting and restoring historic structures. In recent years, the program also has focused on buying up properties in flood-prone zones, particularly after extreme storms have hammered the state and damaged homes.

Farmland preservation may prove to be a bone of contention in how the state allocates the funds.

“There isn’t enough money to do what parks need, Green Acres (the traditional source of open-space programs) and farmland preservation,’’ said David Pringle, New Jersey campaign director of Clean Water Action. “We are going to push for Green Acres and less for farmland.’’

In any event, some programs are going to wind up losers.

“There is no question that some things are going to have to wait to get funded,’’ Somers said.

Gilbert agreed. “The reality is all of these programs will see less funding than they have been getting during the heydays,’’ he said.

So far, there has been no bill introduced to implement the ballot question.

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