New Jersey voters won't get to vote this year on funding to preserve open space, farmland and historic sites and to buy out flood-prone properties.
The New Jersey Senate met July 29 in a rare summer session to act on a resolution that would have enabled voters to choose long-term open-space funding.
But due to politics - including Senate Republicans backing away from earlier support of the bipartisan effort, reportedly at Gov. Chris Christie's request - and the Assembly's reluctance to vote on the measure, the resolution fell two votes shy of the 24-vote "super majority" needed to move it forward.
The resolution still passed by a 22-8 simple majority, leaving the door open for a question on the November 2014 ballot.
It's a disappointment that the question won't appear on this year's ballot. Voters would have been asked to amend the state constitution to dedicate $200 million per year in sales tax revenues to preserve open space for the next three decades.
The 30-year funding period was chosen because experts from Rutgers University project that New Jersey will reach full build-out by midcentury. All of the state's land will be developed, preserved or spoken for at that point.
New Jerseyans have a long history of supporting efforts to save land, and recent polling reinforced the overwhelming popularity of this program with New Jersey citizens.
Long considered a national model on land preservation, New Jersey is now in limbo. For one of the few times since the first Green Acres referendum in 1961, we're without a source of funding to ensure clean water, farmland and parks preservation and wildlife-habitat protection. The most recent bond referendum was passed in 2009, and all of that $400 million has been spent or allocated.
Preservation efforts will still limp along for the next year, as older existing projects are brought to completion. But few new state-funded projects will enter the preservation pipeline because of uncertainty about the program's future.
That's a shame, because approximately one million acres - or 20 percent of the state - remain unprotected and developable.
New Jersey has a critical need to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of parks and open space, along with drinking water sources and natural buffers along coastal and inland waterways that will help prevent future flooding and storm damage. Studies show that every dollar invested in land preservation returns $10 in economic value to the state through nature's "ecoservices," such as flood control and water filtration.
In addition, approximately 350,000 more acres of farmland must be preserved to maintain a viable agricultural industry. Agriculture is the Garden State's third largest industry, as well as the reason it got its nickname, with more than 10,000 farms generating at least a billion dollars annually.
Thank you to the senators who supported the resolution, especially Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and the resolution's sponsors, Senators Kip Bateman, R-Somerset, and Bob Smith, D-Middlesex. Special thanks are also due to Senator Diane Allen, R-Burlington, who, with Bateman, crossed party lines to support the measure.
Land preservation benefits all New Jersey residents, and has never before been a partisan issue. Please urge the Assembly to bring the resolution, SCR160, to a vote this year so voters get the chance in 2014 to secure long-term funding for clean air and water, parks, wildlife habitat, farmland and historic sites.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.