New Law Simplifies How State Allocates Funds to Preserve Open Space

Tom Johnson | June 28, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Farmland, historic properties and conservation nonprofits garner a larger share of funds

Credit: newsworks.org
open space
Gov. Phil Murphy has signed a bipartisan bill that determines how the state will allocate constitutionally dedicated funds to preserve open space, farmland and historic structures.

The new law could result in less messy fights over how to dispense a big pot of corporate business tax revenues to fund a wide array of open space projects each year. This year, $155 million will be divvied up among state and local governments and nonprofit groups that annually vie for the money.

The governor signed the legislation (S-2920) without comment on Wednesday. By and large, the law approves a new mechanism of how the funds should be allocated, with farmland and historic preservation projects, as well as conservation nonprofit groups, getting a bigger share than in the past.

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

“The signing and enacting of this law has been a very long time coming,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex). “The Legislature, environmental groups and activists have worked longer than anyone can imagine on making sure this covered everything it was supposed to.’’

Permanent funding mechanism

In the past, largely relying on more costly bond issues, the state typically spent more than $200 million annually on preservation projects. The conservation community successfully pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2014 to create a smaller, but more stable source of funding for the state’s Green Acres, Blue Acres, farmland preservation and historic preservation programs.

With a smaller pot of money available, it led to a lot more jockeying for a piece of the funds. After much deliberation, the bill that emerged won wide backing from most environmental groups around the state.

“It’s a great bill,’’ said Ed Potosnak, chair of the Keep It Green Coalition. “We’re really excited to have a permanent funding mechanism put in place.’’

Under Green Acres, local governments would be able to apply for grants to be used for open space acquisition and recreational development. The majority of funds, however, would go to state open-space acquisition and development projects.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, criticized the bill, saying it takes away funding from urban areas and state parks.

“Money for open space comes mostly from urban areas, where most of the people live,’’ he said. “They’re putting the money in, but they’re not getting the resources back that wealthier suburbs are getting.’’

That view was disputed by Potosnak and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which administers the Green Acres program.

Green Acres working to preserve Great Falls

Credit: DEP
Paterson Great Falls
In a memo yesterday, Lloyd Naideck, director of governmental relations for the DEP, said the recognition of the special challenges and needs of urban communities led to the establishment of the Green Acres Urban Aid funding category in 1978. Since the start of the program, Green Acres has provided over $430 million in Urban Aid funding.

Green Acres recently purchased an 8.5-acre tract of land near the Great Falls National Historic Park to preserve the viewshed at the landmark, Naideck said. This supplements $12 million in Green Acres acquisition and park funding already dedicated to parks in and around the Paterson Great Falls.