Plan to Preserve Land in NJ

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New Jersey voters have agreed 13 times to allow the state to borrow money to buy land for preservation. Now they could be asked to approve a more farsighted plan - preservation funding for the next 30 years derived from state sales tax revenue.

A proposal to put the long-term funding question on the next ballot will be discussed when the Senate environment committee meets Monday. If three-fifths of the Senate and Assembly ultimately agree, voters will be asked this fall to amend the constitution to allocate a fixed amount from sales tax collections for preservation purchases.  Gov. Chris Christie's signature isn't required to get a question on the ballot.

“I think it if goes up in both houses, it gets three-fifths,” said Sen. Bob Smith of Middlesex County, a prime Senate sponsor and chairman of the environment panel. “All we're doing is putting it on the ballot and saying, `Do you want continued open space and preservation and a stable source of funding for that open space?’”

New Jersey's Green Acres program includes the preservation of farmland, flood-prone properties, historic sites and land seen as important to the protection of drinking water supplies. Proponents say it's taken on new urgency since Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey's coastline.

The measure would pump more money into the state's Blue Acres program, which buys back properties from homeowners who live in low-lying spots that have repeatedly flooded. After buying up the homes, the state razes them and maintains the area as wetlands to help protect against future flooding.

Christie announced buyouts Thursday for about 1,000 residents who live along the Raritan and South rivers, the Jersey shore and Passaic River basin, funded by $300 million in federal post-Sandy aid. One woman told Christie at a town hall meeting in Sayreville that she was ready to hand over the house keys now, after being flooded three times in as many years.

Voters have approved all 13 prior Green Acres initiatives dating back to 1961. The most recent, $400 million approved in 2009, has been mostly spent. But proponents have sought a more stable source of long-term funding for years. The question being considered would dedicate about $200 million per year to open space preservation.

“It's a very good sign there is growing recognition we need to do something urgently,” said Kelly Mooij, coordinator for the NJ Keep It Green environmental coalition, which has been lobbying for the ballot measure. “Without addressing long-term needs, this would be the first break in funding in decades and New Jersey's legacy of open space and farmland preservation programs would be in jeopardy.”

She said that the state has done a good job preserving lands, but that significant needs remain.

Smith said he decided to advance the idea of dedicating a portion of the sales tax as a preservation funding source after it got more support than a water-use tax or continued reliance on borrowing, two other options considered at a public hearing this winter. Smith, a Democrat, is joined as a bill sponsor by Republican Sen. Kip Bateman of Somerset County.

Smith said then there were merits and drawbacks to each approach. Dedicating a percentage of the sales tax to preservation could shortchange other environmental programs, like clean energy and violations enforcement, because less money would be directed to the general fund. However, knowing in advance the amount of money available for preservation each year would allow for long-term planning.

State voters approved a sales tax dedication in 1998 that funded 10 years' worth of acquisitions and 20 years to pay back the bonds.
Getting a question on the ballot in New Jersey requires simple majority votes in both houses of the Legislature in two consecutive years, or a three-fifths vote in each house in one year. That means 24 out of 40 votes would be needed in the Senate and 48 out of 80 in the Assembly to put the question to voters this fall.

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer of Newark, who leads the Assembly environment committee, said the bill likely would be amended so that a fixed percentage of the sales tax, like 2.5 percent of the amount collected, would be dedicated to preservation rather than a fixed figure, like $200 million. Spencer said that change could garner additional support because it would take into account fluctuations in the economy.

“My hope is that on Monday when it moves in the state Senate that it will move with the amendments and we can adopt the Senate version with amendments,” Spencer said.

Spencer said she expects the proposal to be on her committee's next agenda in mid-June.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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