New Jersey’s open space fund is officially broke. Last month Gov. Christie appropriated the last remaining voter-approved funds, $123 million, for open space purchases. This is the first time since 1988 that Green Acres has run out of money.
There is now no more money available from the 2009 Bond Act. The administration has drained the fund dry with no proposal to replenish the funds. Over the last forty years we have financed open space purchases through voter approved bond acts; now we need a stable source of continuous funding to preserve environmentally sensitive areas and historic resources, keep important agricultural soils in active farming, and to help get families out of harm’s way through Blue Acres which purchases flood prone properties.
Even with the release of the bonds today, open space funding is dramatically down under Governor Christie. The Green Acres Program funding is about 45% less than 4 years ago. In May, Commissioner Martin reported we only had $194 million left in Green Acres for the next two years. That is the lowest it has been in the past 20 years. With the release of the bonds today that would still only be about $158 million a year for the next two years, compared to $235 million annually over the past eleven years. With real estate prices low, we should be investing more in open space protection, not cutting back.
The Governor is taking credit for funding passed in 2009, which he opposed and has since cut in half. But this is an administration that cares more about press releases and photo-ops than they do about protecting the environment and open space. We are glad they approved the funding, but this will be the last big appropriation for a long time.
There is $8 million in funding for the Highlands region, which under previous administrations received an average of $60 million a year. If the Governor wanted to protect the water supply for 5.4 million state residents we would be dedicating money to buy open space in the region and make land owners whole.
The Governor is only devoting $3 million to acquisitions around the Barnegat Bay, which will do little to help the Bay. Sprawl and overdevelopment are the biggest threats to the Bay’s health. Open space funding would help limit this inappropriate growth and protect the most sensitive areas in the watershed.
During the period from 1998 to 2008 Green Acres alone preserved an average of 21,000 acres per year. Now we are buying less than half that. There is more than a $500 million back log in matching grant programs for local governments to buy open space. During the last two decades lost between 15,000 and 20,000 acres to development each year, while we are only purchasing 10,000 acres of open space per year. We have seen sprawl turn the nurseries and flower farms along our major highways into office parks and shopping malls.
While the Governor is taking credit for preserving open space, his administration is allowing the diversion of public lands for polluting projects. The State House Commission and Green Acres Program approved the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Upgrade project which would cut underneath the Monksville Reservoir and Delaware River. About 50% of the fossil fuel project would be on public lands. The administration approved the company’s prior 300 Line project through Wawayanda and Long Pond Ironworks State Parks. Land in Liberty State Park will also be diverted by the administration for the polluting Spectra Pipeline. The Commission and Green Acres approved land diversions for the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line, permitting the expansion of power line to carry more coal-fired energy across lands that are supposed to be held in the public trust.
We need a long term stable source of funding for open space acquisitions. This funding must come from new sources such as a water surcharge. Establishing a stable open space funding source must not be used as an excuse to cut funding for other environmental programs, education, women’s health, or property tax relief.
We can’t keep going from bond to bust. The most popular program in state’s history will be coming to an end unless we find a stable source of funding. If that happens, more land will be lost to development and sprawl. This is the best time to be buying open space when prices are low and we may not get this opportunity for another generation.