Scramble for Funds as More Money Allotted to Preserve Open Space, Farmland in NJ

Interest groups are jockeying over how $155 million will be divided, with some concerned the Blue Acres program, which buys up flood-prone properties, might lose out

For the first time in years, the state has a bigger pot of money to fund open space and farmland preservation, a fact that has set off a lot of jockeying among various interest groups over where the funds should be spent.

In the state’s next fiscal year, the allocation of funds dedicated from the corporate business tax for preservation ticks up from 4 percent to 6 percent, meaning the available pool of money will grow to $155 million.

The decision over how to allocate those funds is being shaped in a bill pending before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which held a hearing on the legislation (S-2920) earlier this month. It was held after the panel sought additional input from stakeholders on where the money should be spent.

For the most part, the bill allocates funding as in the past: 62 percent will 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.

The chief concerns voiced about the current allocation involve folding the existing Blue Acres program into the state Department of Environmental Protection’s traditional Green Acres program. Some fear that move could end up short-changing the Blue Acres program, which buys up flood-prone properties as a buffer against future flooding.

Blue Acres, Green Acres

“Blue Acres is an important tool to fund those areas that are vulnerable and help people move out when threatened with repeated flooding,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. He feared Blue Acres might become a lesser priority if it was merged into the Green Acres program.

Kelly Mooij, coordinator of the Keep It Green Coalition, agreed. At least 10 percent of state acquisition funds should be used for Blue Acres, she said.

“The Blue Acres program will allow us to get more New Jersey citizens out of harm’s way in a rational manner,’’ added Bill Kibler of the Raritan Headwaters Association, noting that with climate change increased flooding is a very real issue for the state.

Mooij, a vice president of NJ Audubon, also suggested the state increase funding for nonprofits, which buy up open space and farmland, from 6 percent to 10 percent within the Green Acres program.

“We believe non-profits are incredibly well-suited to help effectuate the complicated land deals and most importantly leveraging more dollars to ensure greater preservation that happens more swiftly,’’ Mooij said.

Eric Olsen of the New Jersey chapter of the Nature Conservancy warned the state must identify the most important lands that need to be preserved before the state reaches a so-called build-out of all available land. “To protect more land, we need more funding,’’ he said.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the bill’s sponsor, said he hopes to come up with a final version of the legislation by the end of January. That would make it more likely the bill could win legislative approval before lawmakers break for their annual budget deliberations in the spring.