Toughest Part of Open-Space Preservation: Dividing Up State Funding

Bill would allocate money across the environmental community, but amounts are smaller than most recipients are accustomed to receiving

open space meadow
Lawmakers have drafted a bill to divvy up money from the open-space ballot question approved last November, but even its sponsor acknowledged that the disbursement of funds will not satisfy many of its backers.

“Nobody is going to be happy,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, ‘’but we believe this is a starting point.’’

Last fall, voters approved a measure that would allocate $71 million of corporate business taxes to fund open-space preservation for four years, and then increase it to at least $121 million in succeeding years. That makes it possible to replenish a fund to protect undeveloped land and preserve farmland and historic structures, which is basically broke.

But the money allocated to the program is far less than what the state has set aside in the past, when more than $200 million was given to towns, counties, nonprofits, and others.

“With open space (funding), we will be on diet, but we won’t go through periods of boom and bust,’’ said Smith, referring to times when the fund was depleted in the past because other sources of financing — primarily open-space bond issues — were exhausted.

The current open-space program, approved by voters, is geared to continue for 30 years.

Under the draft bill, expected to be introduced Thursday, $45 million of the money would be allocated to the state’s Green Acres program, which preserves open spaces and develops parks in urban areas. Another $21 million would be set aside for farmland preservation; $3 million for the state’s Blue Acres program to buy up flood-prone properties; and $2.1 million to maintain historic structures.

The proposed allocations reflect a deep cut in money set aside for the programs from a 2009 bond issue.

Green Acres funding is down from $218 million; Blue Acres is down from $246 million; farmland preservation is dropping from $146 million; and protection of historic structures is falling from the $12 million allocation from the 2009 bond issue, according to material prepared by the committee.

The draft bill would to set aside $15 million for the state Department of Environmental Protection, equal to what was given to the agency in the past from corporate business taxes for state development projects.

One of the biggest criticisms of the November ballot question centered on whether it would divert existing funds for key environmental projects to preserve open space.

“We know state parks need funding. We took care of it,’’ Smith said, while conceding it means less funding for other open-space programs. “I fully expect the next four years (at the current annual funding rate of $71 million) to be a period of trial and error.’’

Still, some open-space advocates said the draft bill is a good start.

“It appears to be a fair and reasonable allocation of the funds that are available,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green Coalition, a wide array of environmental and conservation groups that have been lobbying for a stable source of open-space funding for years.

Others were not so enthusiastic. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said his organization opposed the bill because it provided no specific set-asides for urban areas — where most of the money from the diversion of corporate business taxes would be generated. Tittel is also against a small amount of money going to nonprofits for stewardship of protected lands.

If introduced by Thursday, as Smith hopes it will be, the bill could move through the state Legislature before it breaks for its annual summer recess.