New Jersey is a small state sandwiched between two major metropolitan areas, so much of it is urbanized.
That it isn’t entirely urbanized is mainly thanks to a variety of very effective land preservation efforts. At the start of the just concluded decade, the U.S. Geological Survey found that 18.4 percent of New Jersey is permanently protected natural land with a mandated management plan — quite a bit more than any other state in the East and any other mid-sized to small state.
We support land preservation to protect habitat for animals and plants, provide relief in this most densely populated state, and generally maintain environmental quality. Recently this newspaper welcomed the protection of another major tract, a 1,350-acre former holly tree farm in Millville.
Some think South Jersey already preserves too much of its land. The Holly Farm deal had its critics. A Millville official expressed disappointment that the city lost a major taxable property. Allen Carter, business administrator for Tuckahoe Turf Farms, called it “a lost opportunity for the city of Millville and businesses in the area.”
Frankly, critics of more preservation have a strong argument too.
Protected lands dominate the eastern half of South Jersey from Toms River to its bottom in Cape May. The state’s land-status map shows there is far more protected land in the region than that available for development.
That’s good for the state and improves some quality of life measures. But it also has a big disadvantage — it discourages the kind of development that has enriched the dominant urbanized areas of the state. That has left South Jersey poorer, which drives its scores lower on a host of socioeconomic indicators. More investment in and development of the region’s properties could do more to alleviate income disparities and social ills than government programs.
Tuckahoe Turf Farms wanted to buy the Holly Farms property and use it to expand its thriving business supplying turf to major U.S. athletic facilities.
Previously, an energy company wanted to build a large solar power facility there and pay $600,000 a year in lieu of local taxes for three decades. Another developer wanted to build a 950-unit senior housing project and golf course. Any private development would have created jobs and added revenue for local governments.
Since environmental preservation and economic development are both fundamental goods, they need to be balanced — and not just at the statewide level.
Localities that shoulder a vastly disproportionate share of New Jersey’s land excluded from development — in state parks and forests, federal parks and wildlife refuges, and nonprofit conservation acquisitions — should get more help offsetting the loss of their economic potential.
The state has made some small steps in this direction. A few years ago it enacted a law enabling wineries benefiting from farmland preservation programs to extend their businesses into hosting weddings, dinners and meetings. Another law said sports fields are a permitted form of low-intensity recreation at pinelands turf farms.
Much more should be done. At the least, affected communities should be eligible for funds to market and promote tourist use of their preserved properties. They should also be able to offer special incentives to develop outside their preserved land.
Helping towns and counties that take this environmental protection hit for the state also would build support for existing green space and additional preservation.