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NJ Lawmakers Advance Open Space Funding Proposals

The stalemate over how to fund future open space purchases continued Thursday, with legislative committees in the Senate and Assembly advancing competing proposals.

Open Space
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

In legislative hearings held simultaneously, the two bodies forwarded different methods of funding land preservation with no clear indication of which would reach voters, or when.

The Senate Environment Committee moved ahead with a proposal to fund open space purchases for 30 years by dedicating a percentage of the sales tax. The Assembly Budget Committee advanced a $200 million bond measure.

Voters would get the final say, if legislators can agree on what to ask for. Sign-off by Gov. Chris Christie is not required.

Open space funding goes to acquiring and developing land for recreation and conservation, preserving farmland and funding historic preservation and projects in flood zones. About 640,000 acres have been bought and protected since 1961. The open space preservation fund is currently out of money.

Lawmakers and environmentalists agree that finding a sustainable source of funding is a priority. Beyond that, however, there is disagreement within both groups over which funding method is best, or whether it’s time to start over to try to identify a new pot of money.

Polls show New Jerseyans strongly support open space preservation but are split over how to fund it. Voters have consistently approved borrowing measures, and in 1998 OK’d 10 years of funding, which was paid for by the sales tax.

Proponents of borrowing say New Jersey can’t afford to redirect up to $200 million from sales tax revenue without shorting other programs and services.

Proponents of long-term funding say increasing the state’s debt load is not a responsible way to pay for open space.

New Jersey’s Keep It Green Coalition of environmental advocates testified against the borrowing proposal, while the New Jersey Sierra Club testified against the long-term plan.

There’s no consensus among lawmakers either.

Senate Environmental Committee Chairman Bob Smith sponsored the sales tax resolution; Assembly Environmental Committee Chairwoman Grace Spencer sponsored the borrowing measure.

“We must take this necessary step to ensure continued open space funding to protect against sprawl and overdevelopment and to preserve land for future generations,” Smith said in a statement after the vote. “Open space is imperative to protect the state’s drinking water, improve air quality and provide recreational space that improves residents’ quality of life.”

Some of the money would be used to buy up flood-prone properties from willing sellers, razing the buildings and returning the land to open space.

Spencer said the borrowing is meant to be a stop-gap measure to keep the open space program going while a longer-term source of funding is identified.

“To do nothing is derelict,” she testified. “Everybody would like to see a sustainable source of funding for open space. The time is not now.”

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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