By Peter Fontaine
The New Jersey Legislature is considering a bill that would pose this question to voters in November: Should a small portion of the state sales tax be dedicated to preserve critical open spaces and farmland in New Jersey? For anyone concerned about the quality of life and property values in New Jersey, the answer should be "Yes!"
The legislation would place a referendum on the ballot asking voters to dedicate $200 million annually in sales-tax revenues to replenish depleted funding for the Green Acres, Blue Acres, Farmland and Historic Preservation programs. These programs were funded by a 2009 voter-approved bond referendum that is now depleted. With no new funding source in place, New Jersey will be unable to continue its long-standing efforts to preserve open spaces.
The proposed $200 million annual dedication is less than 1 percent of the state budget and is about the same amount the state spent annually on preservation programs over the past 15 years. The bill accomplishes the goal of renewing preservation funding without increasing taxes or adding to state debt. The funds would come from the projected growth of more than $400 million annually in sales-tax revenues, and would not divert funds from other current environmental programs or pressing needs.
The bill passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support, and the full Assembly should do the same soon.
Continued farmland preservation is vital to the future of South Jersey agriculture. The farmland preservation program has preserved more than 200,000 acres of farmland. More than a quarter of those acres are in Burlington, Camden, Salem, and Gloucester Counties. Since 1999, Camden County alone has preserved more than 2,000 acres of open space and farmland, and created or enhanced dozens of park and recreation areas.
Preservation of farmland, parks, open space, and historic sites reaps substantial economic rewards. In 2011, the state's more than 10,000 farms generated $1.1 billion, according to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. Wildlife-related tourism is estimated to generate roughly $3 billion annually as well as 37,000 jobs.
Home values also rise when land is preserved for parks and open spaces. Study after study confirms that homes near parks and open spaces are worth thousands more than comparable homes lacking such proximity.
Protected open space and waterways also serve as a natural buffer against storm damage by absorbing flood waters and storm-water runoff.
While we've made great gains in recent years in preserving land, water, farmland, and historic sites, more needs to be done. And voters who understand the importance of preservation have a right to be heard on this issue in November.