Panel OKs Spending Bill that Boosts Role of Nonprofits in Preservation Projects

Groups’ share of open-space funds goes from 2 percent to 10 percent, and from 3 percent to 4 percent for farmland preservation

Lawmakers appear to have settled on a mechanism for allocating constitutionally dedicated funds to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures for the next fiscal year and beyond.

In a bipartisan vote, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee last week agreed on how to spread at least $155 million among state and local governments, nonprofit groups and others who typically vie for a piece of corporate business taxes allocated to preservation projects each year.

The legislation (S-2920) largely retains how funds have been apportioned in the past with some notable tweaks, primarily to allow nonprofit groups a larger piece of the funding for open-space acquisition and development, as well as farmland preservation.

Another significant change this year is that the share of corporate business taxes allocated for preservation efforts has been boosted from 4 to 6 percent, increasing the annual funding allocation by about $60 million.

Still, the overall funding falls short of what had been spent in past years when — relying mostly on borrowing — the state would devote up to $200 million on open space and farmland projects.

‘Fiscally conservative approach’

Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the committee and sponsor of the bill, urged advocates to back the new approach. “This is a pay-as-you-go, fiscally conservative approach,’’ said the Democrat from Piscataway.

Sen. Chris (Kip) Bateman, a Republican from Somerset County, agreed. “This is not perfect, but everyone should be happy,’’ he said.

Overall, 62 percent of the funding will be targeted for acquisition and development of lands for public recreation and conservation purposes; 31 percent will go for farmland preservation and 7 percent for historic preservation.

In one other notable change, at least 10 percent of state acquisition funds will be used for the Blue Acres program, an effort geared to buying up flood-prone properties as a buffer against future flooding. Under the new arrangement, Blue Acres is to be folded into the traditional Green Acres program, which funds state and local acquisitions as well as park and recreational projects.

Nonprofit conservation groups, which leverage state open-space and farmland money with their own funds to preserve undeveloped and agricultural land, also saw increases in funds allocated to their efforts. Open-space acquisitions for nonprofits increased from 2 percent to 10 percent and farmland preservation efforts also rose from 3 percent to 4 percent.

“It is so critical that we are able to continue the on-the-ground conservation efforts so many of our partners are doing,’’ said Ed Potosnak, chair of the Keep It Green Coalition and executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

The legislation also authorizes a special $500,000 appropriation from the Preserve New Jersey Historic Preservation Fund to establish an electronic database to track projects that receive funding for historic preservation efforts.

The legislation now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration.

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