For the first time in more than two years, the state is awarding money to preserve open space and to upgrade existing recreational facilities.
Gov. Chris Christie yesterday signed without comment legislation (S-2997) that would appropriate $59 million out of a newly created open-space fund to finance a range of projects protecting undeveloped land and to buy up flood-prone properties around the state.
The approval puts the first money out on the street from a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2014 to use a portion of corporate business taxes to fund preservation of open space and other recreational projects.
“We’re thrilled to see funds begin to flow to New Jersey’s open-space preservation programs once again,’’ said Kelly Mooij, coordinator of Keep It Green, a coalition of more than 100 conservation, parks, and other organizations. “Every year of inaction meant more open spaces lost forever.’’
Despite overwhelming approval by the voters, a dispute over how the money should be allocated between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican governor helped stall awarding of money from the fund until a compromise was reached last year.
That compromise established a framework for how funds would be spent through the state’s budget year fiscal year 2019. The bill signed yesterday appropriates $59.5 million to various projects, including capital expenditures at recreational facilities and parks.
“From the Highlands to the Pinelands, all 21 New Jersey counties have an open space or waterway that will benefit from this appropriation,’’ said Sen. Chris (Kip) Bateman (R-Somerset), a prime sponsor of the bill. “Green and Blue Acres programs need a constant source of funding,’’ he said, citing the importance of a stable source of funding.
The creation of the open-space fund eliminates the need to approve more expensive borrowing that required voter approval every few years, a process that not only increased costs, but introduced uncertainty into state efforts to acquire undeveloped land from property owners willing to sell.
“A one-time payment is enough when there are parks to maintain and natural resources to protect in every corner of the state,’’ Bateman said.
Of the total, $26.6 million is for state land acquisition, $26.5 million is for capital projects in state parks and wildlife refuges, and $6.4 million is for the Blue Acres program, which enables the state to buy and raze homes in flood zones.
Other open-space appropriation bills to preserve farmland and historic structures and for local Green Acres grants are working their way through the Legislature. The Senate Environment and Energy Committee is scheduled to take up a package of those bills at a hearing in Trenton on Monday.