Land preservation and development have always been at odds in Cumberland County. It is considered by some to be the last bastion for natural living in an over-crowded state. For others, all that space seems like a great opportunity for developers.

In one of the few counties in the state with a surplus of land that could be considered for both preservation and economic development, the need to find an appropriate balance between the two is crucial.

Despite having a 1-cent tax raising $1 million annually to fund land preservation, the county is the only one in New Jersey without an open-space plan. However, a consultant is developing a plan for the county, one that, with the help of environmental groups, municipalities and residents, will identify land that should be preserved and the reasons why.

With the county’s three cities — Millville, Vineland and Bridgeton — always seeking development opportunities, a comprehensive plan should help curb the debate as to how much is too much.

“It’s more of a strategy,” said Bob Brewer, county planning director. “Maybe (the open space plan) will identify gaps in preserved land, maybe there is something that we’re overlooking.”

By most measures, Cumberland is the poorest county in the state. It has the least in the way of ratables — just a little more than $9.8 billion in net valuation — and the highest rate of unemployment at 14.4 percent as of June, an estimate some believe might be on the low side.

At planning board meetings throughout the county, developers who set their eyes on wide tracts of land prized by environmentalists have promised to preserve at least some percentage of the land.

Special places not preserved

One such area is the land surrounding Union Lake in Millville. Hundreds of acres of undeveloped lakefront are owned by Wawa Inc. The land has been categorized by the state as environmentally sensitive, but attempts to develop large chunks of it continue.

Environmentalists say this property, like many undeveloped properties throughout the county, is perfect for passive recreation such as hiking and fishing. City planners say this property, located near heavily traveled roads and pre-existing commercial properties, is a prime site for development.

This is not a unique situation. With no preservation plan in place, large portions of sensitive land are fair game.

The Union Lake Bluffs rise 80 feet above the water at Union Lake. Matt Blake, Delaware Bay manager for the American Littoral Society, said there’s not much else like the privately owned land. As far as topography goes, it’s unique in the county.

Every day people hike the trails, take their dogs on the paths, fish and sometimes ride horses. It’s an example of undeveloped land used for recreation. But the longer it goes without preservation, the greater the chance of development.

“There’s nothing like an awe-inspiring view,” he said. “Certain sites really lend themselves to an almost spiritual feeling. To lose something like that to a strip of big houses would be awful.”

Blake said that in 2007, prior to the start of the recession, 16,000 acres of land in New Jersey were newly developed. In years prior to that, the number of acres newly developed hovered around 15,000.

The Union Lake Bluffs are zoned commercial and residential. A saving grace for environmentalists is that Millville doesn’t plan on extending sewer service to the area any time soon. Still, that doesn’t mean forever.

The bluffs were one of several pieces of land identified by environmental groups during a tour less than two years ago. The tour highlighted various pieces of undeveloped land or historical properties that they said have both recreational and cultural value.

“These are sites that the public will use but is in danger of losing,” Blake said. “If not preserved, most assuredly, this land will be developed at some point.”

Plan can bring more funds

Simone Collins, a landscape architecture and planning firm based in Pennsylvania, is preparing the open space plan. Peter Simone has hosted public forums around the county, with more planned, and his firm is conducting phone surveys to find out what residents desire from the plan.

The open space plan costs about $80,000, Brewer said.

About 40 percent of the land in Cumberland County is preserved. The number seems high, though a significant portion of the land cannot be built on and can’t be accessed for use as open space.

“One of the challenges is how to we get to them,” Simone said, noting that the number one request in all the studies he’s ever seen is a desire for trail systems.

Developing the plan will not only identify areas that could be preserved, but will also make it easier to attract funding. Blake said it’s much easier to attract state and federal dollars for preservation with a plan. Now, the county  needs to leverage the money it pulls in each year to make a bigger push in preservation.

The county’s preservation tax  raises less than its neighbors,  Salem and Cape May counties. Cape May County, with its current $58 billion ratable base, raised $5.5 million toward land preservation last year.

Earlier this year Salem County received $1 million in state funding to preserve land in the Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The funding came shortly after the county approved its open space plan.

Although it has not issued grants recently, the state’s Green Acres program, which purchases land for preservation, still has $400 million. Local officials hope that putting up some money for land purchase will lead to more funding from the state.

An important part of the plan, and whatever is decided, is that the county stick with it. Simone cited an eco-tourism plan conducted by the county more than 25 years ago. It was full of great ideas, he said, but somehow it just disappeared.

“What you’re embarking on here is generational,” Simone said. “It will take years to accomplish. We can come up with a plan, hopefully a great plan, but if it’s not updated, if it doesn’t have a champion, then it doesn’t go anywhere.”

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