Pumping Up State Spending on Open Space, Land Preservation, Parks

Tom Johnson | December 3, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Extra funding to help acquire open space and to deal with ‘massive backlogs’ in park maintenance after logjam between Christie administration and legislators

Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr CC
The state is preparing to ramp up spending on open space, farmland and historic preservation to as much as $155 million beginning in fiscal year 2020.

The infusion of funding is eagerly anticipated by open-space advocates who hope to see more undeveloped land acquired for preservation, protection of water supplies and flood-prone properties.

The allocation of such money is spelled out in legislation (S-2920) to be debated today by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. Under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2014, beginning next July, 6 percent of the state’s corporate business-tax revenue will be spent on open space and other preservation programs. Previously, 4 percent of those taxes went to those programs.

The extra funding is needed to address long backlogs in maintenance at state parks and acquire disappearing open space and agricultural land in the nation’s most densely populated state. Disbursement of the funds also had been tied up in disputes between the Christie administration and Democratic-controlled Legislature over how to spend the money.

One of the biggest changes in the allocation of the money involves folding the existing Blue Acres program into the Department of Environmental Protection’s traditional Green Acres program. Blue Acres is a program aimed at buying up flood-prone properties to use as a buffer against future flooding. Green Acres is the state-run program that divvies up funds for acquisitions and recreational projects by DEP and local governments.

Blue Acres, Green Acres

Under the bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the Blue Acres program would no longer have a separate fund, but be administered by DEP’s Green Acres program.

Other than that, the bill largely retains previous years’ allocation of funding. Beginning in state fiscal year 2020, 62 percent would go to the acquisition and development of land for conservation and public recreational purposes; 31 percent for farmland preservation; and 7 percent for historic preservation.

Of the money targeted to acquisition and recreational purposes, the bulk (60 percent) would be used for state open-space purchases and development, 34 percent would go to grants and loans to local governments, and 6 percent for grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations toward acquisitions and development.

“We need these funds because there are massive backlogs and parks are falling apart without improvements for years,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This legislation is a good first step forward by providing that funding for critical environmental programs.’’