Once a Political Hostage, $59M for NJ Open Space Released

New Jersey voters have a robust history of supporting open-space initiatives, both on the municipal and the state level.

Over the years, they have embraced 13 open-space referenda, allowing the state's highly respected Green Acres program to preserve 650,000 acres in our heavily populated state.

In November 2014, residents sent an unmistakable message to elected officials, overwhelmingly supporting a ballot question changing the state Constitution to create a permanent funding source to protect land and water resources in the Garden State.

Endorsed by a coalition of 180 environmental groups, the measure designates a portion of corporate business taxes to allow the state to buy acreage - including farmland and historical sites - that would otherwise be subject to the whims of developers.

The move was designed to eliminate the need to go back to the voters every few years for their approval, an expensive and uncertain proposition at best.

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But 2-and-a-half years have passed and not one penny of that money has changed hands.

Instead, it got tied up in a lengthy dispute over how the money would be allocated. The argument pitted Gov. Chris Christie - who had steadfastly opposed the ballot question, backed by the conservative Americans for Prosperity - against the Legislature.

Elections have consequences, and so does political squabbling. As one environmental activist put it, "Every year of inaction meant more open spaces lost forever."

But this week, some 30 months after his constituents reminded him - again - how strongly they feel about the matter, Christie signed a billappropriating $59.5 million out of the new open-space fund to underwrite a wide range of projects.

"From the Highlands to the Pinelands, all 21 New Jersey counties have an open space or waterway that will benefit from this appropriation," says state Sen. Chris (Kip) Bateman (R-16th), one of the bill's prime sponsors.

The compromise creates a blueprint for how the funds will be spent through the state's fiscal year 2019.

Under the framework Bateman and his colleagues hammered out, $26.6 million will go for land acquisition, and another $26.5 will fund capital projects in state parks and wildlife refuges.

The remainder, $6.4 million, is headed for the Blue Acres initiative, which allows the state to buy and raze homes in flood zones as part of our Green Acres program.

We are relieved, to say the least, that the money is flowing for these critical projects. It means that for the first time in more than two years, preserving open space and upgrading recreational facilities are once again on the state's radar screen.

And it also tells us that the voters' voices are finally being heard - and respected.

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