The Christie administration is preparing to tap into the $400 million land preservation bond issue voters approved in November, asking towns, counties and nonprofit groups to submit their applications by the end of July.
The bond issue, approved by a 52-48 margin last fall, was opposed by Gov. Chris Christie during his campaign, but Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin told lawmakers last week his agency has begun to accept new applications for land acquisition and park development projects.
In recent weeks, it became clear the administration would tap into the bond issue despite Christie's campaign stance, with Martin assuring lawmakers the administration would honor the voters' decision to borrow money to preserve open space and farmland. New Jersey voters have never rejected an open space bond issue, approving 13 separate measures dating back to 1961, allowing for the preservation of more than 640,000 acres of land, mostly through the.
It also is one of the more popular government programs. Each year, demand far outstrips money available for preservation projects. In March of 2009, local and county governments submitted $300 million in requests for acquisition and park development projects but projects totaling only $120 million were funded. The same problem faced nonprofits, which sought $61 million in funding, but less than half ($29 million) were awarded grants.
"We definitely cannot fund all the projects that come in," said Martha Sapp, chief of local and nonprofit assistance at the DEP.
At this point, the state has not yet decided how large this year’s program will be, Sapp said. “We don’t know what the demand will be until after the deadline. We might split it over two years, but again it will depend on the demand.’’
Under the bond issue approved last fall, $90 million is set aside for state acquisitions; $110 million in grants to local governments and counties and $18 million for nonprofits, Sapp said. Another $24 million will go to Blue Acres, a program that helps acquire land in floodways of the Passaic, Delaware and Raritan rivers and their tributaries. The rest goes to farmland preservation.
Local officials said they welcome the latest round of funding.
“We have a few projects that we are looking to get funding,’’ said Lauren Wasilauski, open space coordinator for Montgomery Township. Besides a couple of acquisition projects involving undeveloped woodland, the township is planning to seek farmland preservation funds for a 35-acre active farm that could run more than $1 million, Wasilauski said.
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the state should fund projects since New Jersey voters approved the bond issue, but added it was just as important to come up with a program to pay for future acquisitions since the bond issue money will probably be exhausted in two to three years.
Martin has told lawmakers the department wants to come up with a stable source of funding for parks and open space, but has more pressing priorities at the moment. In the administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, it seeks to divert $10 million from a license plate fund designed to cover the loss of trees.