CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — An old Cape May County tax is being used as a new fund for recreation and historic preservation, and those planning to apply say it couldn’t come at a better time since state money for such projects has dried up.

Cape May County voters in 1989 by a 2-1 margin approved a tax to preserve open space and farmland. The levy of 1 cent for each $100 of assessed valuation generates almost $5 million a year and has preserved almost 4,000 acres of open space and farmland over the years.

While the land acquisition component will continue, the Board of Chosen Freeholders recently took advantage of a 1997 state law that allows them to expand uses of the fund.

The money will now also be used for development of parks and recreation, with the first applications due April 15, and historic preservation projects, with those applications due Dec. 16.

These new uses may be especially significant, since the main state source of such funding, Green Acres bonds approved by voters, has been expended.

“It can have great potential for lots of nonprofits,” said Anne Salvatore, who directs the Lower Township tourist attraction Historic Cold Spring Village.

The village has 26 historic buildings, dating as far back as the 17th century, it has to maintain. The program could help do this, though it does require a dollar-for-dollar match for historic preservation projects. It can’t be used for operational expenses but must go to capital projects.

“We’re going to work hard and expand fundraising to get the match. We’ll do everything we can to leverage these funds,” Salvatore said.

Money for parks and recreation do not have to be matched and can go for projects in the county’s 16 municipalities, county agencies and departments, and other uses. The money can be used for new park amenities but not for maintenance, equipment or other normal operational expenses.

The tax has traditionally been used mostly on the mainland because the barrier island towns don’t have farmland or large open spaces to preserve. The new uses could allow the islands to get more return for a tax their property owners pay.

“Our hope is park and recreation development also has an impact on urban environments. It could enhance the quality of life for residents and support business districts and tourism,” said Freeholder Will Morey.

One idea is to use the fund for festivals and other events to bolster business in downtown Wildwood, Morey said. West Cape May Mayor Pam Kaithern said her town may use the tax to restore a house owned by a noted resident, African-American educator William J. Moore.

“The History Committee of West Cape May has talked about it,” Kaithern said.

Each application would be reviewed by the county’s Open Space Review Board before coming before the freeholders, who make the final decisions.

Morey said the county already has a vast amount of preserved open space and some funding should now go to “enhancing communities.”

State legislation from 1997 allows the expanded uses. County Planning Director Leslie Gimeno said the Open Space Review Board consulted with other counties that have such a tax before recommending it to the freeholders. Municipal officials were also consulted.

“Many municipalities said they already have lots of preserved lands. They would rather see enhancements to public spaces,” Gimeno said.

With no applications received as yet, Gimeno is not sure what to expect. She said there will be ranking system and one goal will be to diversify recreational opportunities. While the impetus was not to get more of the funds to the islands, Gimeno said it could end up doing that.

“I think the expansion will likely fit the more dense development pattern you see on the barrier islands. It expands the possibilities,” Gimeno said.

There is no built-in percentage of how much of the tax goes to different uses. A limit on the amount of funding was also not established.

The county will continue taking applications to purchase open space as well as applications deed restrict or purchase agricultural lands.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711