Lawmakers Ink Constitutionally Mandated Increase in Open-Space Funding

Jon Hurdle | January 14, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Nine-bill package provides more money for land preservation from business-tax revenue

Assembly lawmakers gave final approval on Monday to nine bills that will provide $230 million in constitutionally mandated funding to purchase land, improve recreational areas, and preserve farmland and historic properties.

The funding was the largest amount since voters in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment dedicating a portion of revenue from the corporation business tax for conservation projects. This year, 6% of CBT receipts go to the program, up from 4%.

Proceeds from the tax are providing $200 million of this year’s total, and the rest is coming from older sources of funds for staffing and administrative operations.

Biggest share to acquisition and recreation

The biggest share of the new money is $120 million, the largest in a decade, to fund land acquisition and recreational development at state, county and local levels. Of the total, $77.4 million was in grants to counties and towns to pay for 48 land-acquisition projects and 66 programs for recreational development or stewardship. That section of the funding comes with the approval of A-6114, A-6113 and A-6110, which were passed, like the other measures, on the last day of the Legislature’s two-year session.

All the bills were already approved by the Senate, and now head to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy for signature.

Another package of bills authorized $59.5 million for farmland preservation, its largest funding in a decade. The total includes $2.15 million in matching grants to encourage landowners to improve soil conservation and irrigation on farms that have already been preserved. The farmland preservation money is coming from CBT proceeds, except for about $500,000 from old bond funds. The farmland money comes with the approval of bills A-6109, A-6112, A-6108 and A-6106.

The farmland funding will pay up to 80% of the cost of land purchase by counties or municipalities, or up to 50% to nonprofits for the preservation of land pursuant to the Agricultural Retention and Development Act of 1983.

About $29 million will be used by the state’s Green Acres program for the addition of land to state parks and refuges, while $4.6 million is dedicated for the ongoing buyout of flood-prone properties under New Jersey’s Blue Acres program.

The new funding also includes $36 million to improve or repair facilities in state parks, forests and wildlife refuges.

Historic preservation, under A-6107, will receive $13.9 million, all of which is CBT money.

Another $36.1 million was allocated for cutting a backlog in capital projects at state parks and wildlife management areas, as required in A-6111.

And $8.87 million is reserved for matching grants to nonprofit land trusts that are helping finance their own land acquisition, farmland preservation or recreational development.

Acquiring greenway through Burlington County

Among the trusts that will benefit are the D&R Greenway Land Trust, for acquisition of a greenway through 24 municipalities in Burlington County, and a nonprofit called Beautiful Mountainside, for the acquisition of a park in Mountainside Borough, Union County.

David Pringle, a consultant and former staffer for the environmental group Clean Water Action, welcomed the continued protection of open space but argued that there are higher environmental priorities like the cleanup of contaminated sites that are being neglected because of funding cuts in other areas of the state budget.

“We’d rather be spending that money on open space than not, although we are concerned that core DEP programs are being underfunded at the expense of sending money to nonprofits and for contractors and stewardship,” he said.

Passage of the bills just represents government doing its constitutional duty, as mandated by voters, rather than any bold new initiative, Pringle said.

“Because these funds are constitutionally dedicated, they don’t really have any other choice but to spend the money,” he said.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said the new increase in funding shows continued public recognition that open space is worth preserving and worth paying for.

“Again and again, whether they are in Hudson County or Cape May, voters will vote to protect open space, even though it costs money,” he said.

The funding allocation was approved in October by the board of the Garden State Preservation Trust, a state entity that acts as a gatekeeper for the CBT funding and which has initiated the allocation process for the last 20 years.

Funding from the trust has preserved some 440,000 acres since 2000, and about $550 million has been committed to the development of recreational facilities and the preservation of historic sites.