The State We’re In: The Big Question Not On The Ballot

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Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

By now, you know that Gov. Chris Christie was re-elected in a landslide that may launch his presidential bid. Christie captured 60 percent of the vote, nearly double that of his Democratic challenger.

But there was another Election Day landslide that you probably didn’t hear about – one in favor of open space preservation. Seven of 10 municipal ballot questions for funding land preservation were passed.

The biggest victory was in Newark, where voters overwhelmingly supported the establishment of an Open Space and Recreation Trust Fund to acquire, develop and maintain parks and green spaces through a property tax levy of 1 cent per $100 of assessed property value. The question was endorsed by 83 percent of voters and will generate approximately $1.1 million every year.

Voters in six towns in Bergen, Hunterdon, Camden, Burlington and Salem counties said yes to establishing new open space and farmland preservation taxes, extending existing open space taxes, or increasing the amount dedicated to preservation.

Unfortunately, there was no statewide opportunity for citizens to vote on long-term funding for open space, farmland and historic preservation.

Funds from the last state open space ballot in 2009 have all been spent or allocated, leaving New Jersey’s open space and farmland preservation programs high and dry. Time is of the essence in renewing these funds!

New Jersey land is expensive, so most successful preservation efforts happen by pooling local, county and state funds. Without replenished state funds, even towns with their own open space trust funds will likely have to say no to worthy projects.

Garden State voters have embraced open space, farmland and historic preservation, passing all 13 ballot questions since 1961. Polls continue to indicate tremendous public support for renewed open space and farmland funding.

Earlier this year, a New Jersey Keep It Green coalition survey of 600 registered voters found that 74 percent support dedicating $200 million in state sales tax revenues annually to fund open space, farmland and historic preservation programs. Seventeen counties passed resolutions supporting sustainable open space funding, along with the NJ Highlands Council and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

$200 million a year is less than one percent of the state budget, but the benefits of land preservation are priceless.

Every $1 invested in land preservation returns $10 in economic value to the public through natural flood control and water filtration – costs that taxpayers would otherwise have to pick up – according to a study by the Trust for Public Land. Preserved lands also support agriculture, tourism and outdoor recreation, industries that contribute billions of dollars to the state’s economy.

To get a funding question on the November 2014 ballot, the state Assembly must take action soon! The state Senate has already voted in favor of the measure.

Please contact your Assembly representatives and urge them to pass legislation letting the voters decide. To find your legislators, go to http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp. To add your name to a list of open space supporters, go to the NJ Keep It Green website at http://www.njkeepitgreen.org/statementofsupport.htm#.UnusSnC-1I4.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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