Open-Space, Farmland Preservation Get Closer as Panel Votes Out Bill

Tom Johnson | February 9, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Questions remain about funding for Blue Acres, urban-area contamination

Despite a split in the environmental community, a long-awaited bill to set up a funding plan for open-space and farmland preservation cleared a legislative committee yesterday.

The legislation, unanimously approved by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, revives a measure pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year.

An identical bill already has been moving forward in the Senate, a step lawmakers hope will finally free up money to pay to preserve the state’s fast-dwindling open space and farmland under a ballot question overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2014.

The bill (A-780) is controversial because it provides less money than had been allocated to the program in past years, resulting in some groups asserting that it shortchanges efforts to buy up flood-prone properties in New Jersey and target money to urban areas.

Nevertheless, the legislation is strongly backed by a broad coalition of conservation organizations, agricultural officials, and historic-preservation advocates who have seen funding dry up in the past few years.

In the past, largely relying on bond issues approved by voters, as much as $200 million a year was spent on preservation programs. In approving the ballot question, however, much less money — about $80 million in next year’s state fiscal budget plus another $66 million in yet to be allocated funds from corporate business taxes — is available for the effort.

The ballot question drew some opposition, in part because it would divert some corporate business taxes that had been targeted to develop brownfields, contaminated industrial tracts that had have lain fallow, and clean up underground storage tanks.

“The money in this bill originally came from programs in urban areas,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He also criticized the bill for not allocating any funds for the Blue Acres program, which provides funds for residents who want to sell properties that frequently flood.

But Ed Potosnak, chair of the NJ Keep It Green, which lobbied for passage of the ballot question, argued urban communities are “better off’’ under the proposed bill, saying it does include an urban set-aside.

Conceding that the bill does not allocate any money from the corporate taxes to the Blue Acres program, Potosnak noted there is still $11 million in unspent money for the purpose from a 2009 bond issue as well as another $33 million in unallocated money for that use.

Noting the dispute over where the money is proposed to be spent, Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the committee, urged both sides to suggest amendments to the sponsor before the bill reaches the full Assembly. “We’re moving in a direction that will benefit all,’’ she said.

Others agreed. Both farmland and historic-preservation advocates noted funds for those programs have exhausted all their financing options. Since 2013, there has not been any approval for funds for farmland preservation, leaving the four largest counties with agricultural-protection programs no money to preserve the land, according to Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

Cate Litvack, president of Advocates for New Jersey History, said funds for historic preservation are also depleted. A capital-needs survey completed in 2012 projected that $751 million would be required to restore and repair historic structures.

Under the bill, the bulk of the money would go to the state’s Green Acres program (61 percent), which funds open-space acquisition and park development. Thirty-one percent would be used for farmland preservation and 5 percent for historic preservation.

Both the Assembly and Senate bills await action by the respective budget committees.