by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
The familiar opening lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s 1945 folk classic, “This Land Is Your Land,” should be taken literally when talking about our public lands. This land IS your land – and my land, too. We hold it in public trust for future generations. Unfortunately, in these tough economic times, the desire to divert open space to other uses is becoming all too common.
As sluggish real estate markets have eroded property tax revenue around this state we’re in, towns are more and more tempted to eye open space as assets to liquidate for a quick cash infusion.
That’s what almost happened in Holmdel Township in Monmouth County, where the municipal bottom line suffered from loss of property tax revenue following the closing of the former Bell Labs office complex.
Earlier this year, the Holmdel Township Committee announced it would consider selling several parcels of open space to close a $2 million budget gap. Among the properties was the 111-acre Cross Farm, a municipal park.
Nestled amid recreational fields, Thompson Park and the Swimming River reservoir, the Cross Farm includes the Revolutionary-era Smock Burial Ground, as well as an historic house and barn. Township officials said only 12 roadside acres would be considered for sale, though one version of the proposal would have included the whole property.
The proposed land sale was paired with the possibility of a referendum for a municipal tax increase larger than 2 percent, leaving voters with the impression that they’d have to choose between two unpalatable alternatives: higher taxes or less open space. The sale proposal divided the community, with some residents arguing that taxpayers need relief and others countering that it is wrong to sell preserved land.
In the end, it appears that Cross Farm Park will remain intact … at least for now.
Last week, a potential buyer for the Bell Labs property came forward, reviving optimism that the flow of property tax revenues would return. The town also found other revenue sources to close the 2012 budget gap.
Holmdel is not the only town struggling to balance its budget during these challenging economic times. Will others also look to liquidate their open space?
Many municipal officials know that preserved open space is one of the best things going for a community’s bottom line. True, it may not contribute tax dollars. But its benefits are priceless: flood control, clean air and water, and increased value of surrounding land. Plus it doesn’t require services like police, fire, ambulance and schools.
Selling open space erodes the public’s trust and kicks long-term budget problems down the road.
If open space is purchased with state funds, or is part of a local recreation and open space inventory, its sale or diversion for another use must be approved by the Department of Environmental Protection and an entity known as the State House Commission. In addition, the open space land must be replaced.
My hope is that Holmdel and any other town struggling with a budget gap will agree that open space is a long-term investment that provides ongoing benefits forever.
In the words of the song, “This land was made for you and me.” Preserved open spaces are enjoyed today and will be enjoyed by future generations if we can see the land as an irreplaceable resource rather than a commodity to be liquidated.
If you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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