By Louis Cappelli Jr.

In 1998, the residents of Camden County voted overwhelmingly to create a county open-space fund to acquire, preserve, and maintain environmentally sensitive land, open space, drinking-water sources, historic sites, recreation areas, and farmland. Since then, more than 2,000 acres of farmland and open space have been preserved, and existing recreational areas and historic sites have been improved, at a total cost to the county of $40.97 million - money well spent on behalf of taxpayers.

Despite recent critical media coverage of county land purchases, all this has been accomplished according to a thorough, transparent process. It involves the county freeholder board, the county Parks Department, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Pinelands Commission, and the volunteer, bipartisan Open Space Preservation Trust Fund Advisory Committee, as well as municipal authorities and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land in some cases. The value of the properties purchased is determined by certified, independent appraisers. This transparent, layered process involving local, county, and state government ensures that taxpayers' interests are protected.

Over the past decade, Camden County has purchased land strategically for a range of uses, including undeveloped open space, deed-restricted farmland, and major recreation areas. The properties purchased include what is now Timber Creek Park in Gloucester Township, the Stafford Farm in Voorhees, and the Springhouse Farm in Cherry Hill.

Through the open-space fund and the county's open-space plan, which is part of our master plan for growth and development, we have been able not only to purchase land for open space and recreation, but to maintain existing parks and open space, add to bike paths and greenways, create new trails and connect existing ones, and preserve historic houses and sites. This has improved the quality of life for every taxpayer in the county while helping to preserve the region's farming traditions.

The county's 2003 purchase of the Slim's Ranch and Hill properties in Gloucester Township allowed the creation of the approximately 130-acre Timber Creek Park, with its trails, dog park, pavilion, playground, and tree house. Go there any afternoon or weekend, and you'll see children and families at play and leisure.

You can also see open-space dollars at work by visiting Cooper River Park for a regatta or family picnic, enjoying a concert at Wiggins Park, or touring historic Collings-Knight House in Collingswood or the Battleship New Jersey. And open-space money has assisted dozens of local projects that improved playgrounds, athletic facilities, and trails.

Preserving open space also increases property values, and it reduces the demand for schools, sewers, and other services by preventing further development. It's estimated, for example, that the preservation of property on Pump Branch Road in Winslow Township will save taxpayers nearly $700,000 a year in school costs compared with a proposal to build 92 homes there. And development of the Slim's Ranch and Hill properties would have added more than 500 houses to an already-congested part of Gloucester Township.

In addition to saving money, preserving space, and creating recreational areas, the preservation trust fund protects local birds, fish, wildlife, and ecologically sensitive and valuable areas. The acquisition of land on New Brooklyn Road in Winslow Township was hailed by the Pinelands Permanent Land Protection Committee as being of "high ecological integrity and a worthwhile project." The property lies along the county's Great Egg Harbor Greenway and borders both the county's New Brooklyn Park and a preserved 100-acre parcel owned by the state.

The freeholders are very proud of our record as stewards of open space for Camden County residents, and we pledge to continue these efforts.