Open-Space Fight Pits Farmland Preservation Against Environmentalists

With a smaller pie to divvy up among open-space advocates, arguments are starting to flare up about where money should be spent

In what is emerging as a potentially contentious fight between farmland-preservation advocates and environmentalists, there is a dispute brewing over how $71 million annually in new state money should be distributed.

The controversy surfaced publicly at a hearing held by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee yesterday on how to allocate money voters approved in a constitutional amendment last month to dedicate a portion of corporate business-tax revenue to open space issues.

While providing a stable source of funding for 30 years for open-space preservation, the money is far less than the approximately $200 million a year the state typically allocated to these programs in the past. Having less money to spend is leading to conflicts.

“There’s too many environmental funding needs, but not enough money to go around,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, a comment echoed by others who supported the ballot question this past November.

“We must all make do with less,’’ acknowledged Eileen Swan of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, one of the supporters of the NJ Keep It Green Coalition, which backed the constitutional amendment

With less money to divvy up, however, there are bound to be fights over where the funds should go. The money will not be allocated for another year.

The program diverts $71 million from the corporate business tax over four years to open-space preservation and other issues, but that could climb to $117 million as the diversion increases in the future. Some are opposed to the initiative itself, because it would divert money from other programs run by the state Department of Environmental Protection to clean up contaminated waste sites, monitor water quality, and spend money on capital projects for state parklands.

Most of those who spoke yesterday at the hearing before the committee agreed the state should spend at least $16 million a year to fund improvements to state parks and forests. Other than that, huge differences surfaced, primarily over how much funding should be allocated to farmland preservation and to nonprofit groups for stewardship of preserved open spaces.

Other speakers said the state should divert more of the money to urban areas to develop parks, which they claimed have been traditionally shortchanged by spending on preserving open space in rural areas and farmland preservation. Some said no funds should be diverted to nonprofit groups for stewardship of lands set aside for preservation — an option opposed by many conservation groups.

“We need more equity for funding in more densely populated communities,’’ said Debbie Mans, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper, an organization devoted to protecting the waters around the New York estuary.

But farmers argued otherwise.

They said over the past 30 years more than 200,000 acres of farmland have been preserved in the state through the open-space program. “We need at least another 350,000 acres to maintain agriculture in the state,’’ said Ryck Sudam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau and an owner of a farm in Franklin Township in Somerset County.

Robert Swanekamp, vice president of the State Board of Agriculture, agreed. “Why should the farming community receive short shrift now?’’ he asked the committee.

But David Pringle, New Jersey campaign director of Clean Water Action, disagreed.

“We think farmland (preservation) should be depriortized,’’ he said. “We need to ensure urban areas get their fair share.’’

One area most agreed upon is the legislation should dedicate money to the Blue Acres program, which helps buy up flood-prone properties along the coast and state’s rivers.

“We recognize how we decide to spend money will be difficult,’’ said Stacy McCormack, director of governmental affairs for the American Littoral Society. “This money (Blue Acres funding) is critical to enable leveraging of federal money.’’

Others, like Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the state should use to the opportunity to decide how money from the ballot question is spent to correct “historic inequities’’ in the open-space program. More money should be spent on urban projects, where most of the funds from the program are generated, he said.