Preserving Our Open Space
A Race Against Time
By John F. McKeon
State Assemblyman and
Mayor, West Orange
Preserving New Jersey’s remaining open space is critical for our future, for both in economic and ecological reasons.
Loss of land, and in particular sources of freshwater, is permanent and irreversible. There are a finite number of undeveloped acres in New Jersey. As the nation’s most densely populated state, we are in a race against time to protect our natural resources. These treasures include pristine watersheds, valuable farmland, historic sites and flood-prone areas.
With land values at a historic low, there has never been a better time to purchase open space. It would be foolish not to take advantage of the most value in return for each tax dollar.
In the first days of this month, and perhaps by the time you read this article, voters will have been asked to support a $400 million dollar bond referendum which will be earmarked to replenish the Garden State Preservation Trust Fund (GSPT). Through the popular Green Acres, Farmland Preservation, Blue Acres and Historic Trust Programs, the GSPT has been responsible for preserving hundreds of thousands of acres of our natural resources. Without any further resources, GSPT, the most successful land preservation program in the nation, has ground to a halt and is in the hands of the electorate for continued funding.
In the most difficult of economic times, with the governor’s race and partisan politics at a fevered pitch, and regional interests more pronounced, the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans, overwhelmingly supported placing an Open Space referendum on the November ballot.
Whether it is a rolling field in Hunterdon County, marsh land in Cumberland County, or a one acre pocket park in the City of Newark, our quality of life and the very character of the Garden State will continue only through the funds provided by this program. However, one of the most compelling reasons to support funding for Open Space now, and in perpetuity is not ecological, but rather economic.
Preserving Open Space is sound public fiscal policy that builds our natural capital, and boosts our agriculture, forestry and tourism industries. It supports flood prevention, fights climate change, and most significantly preserves precious sources of freshwater.
Projected global shortages have experts predicting that drinking water will be more valuable than oil. Although 75 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, only 1 percent of the earth’s water is fit for drinking. With New Jersey’s population at nearly nine million, critical watersheds must be purchased and preserved. In the Highlands alone, more than 19,000 acres that are considered essential to our water supply are in need of acquisition.
Failure to fund open space will increase water treatment costs exponentially. Without the resources to preserve open space, hundreds of millions of dollars in annual additional costs to our state budget are projected by studies cited by the North Jersey District Supply Commission and Rutgers University. Future costs of a failure to constrain development of watershed areas will run into the billions.
Did you know that the purchase of land as a natural water treatment resource is two thirds less expensive than building water treatment facilities? As New Jersey is a state with a significant tax burden, taking on billions in new costs for the sake of providing clean water will be a death knell to our economy.
Our state’s ecosystem provides a wide variety of valuable functions in addition to being the source of our potable water supply. Ecotourism is the fastest growing component of New Jersey’s lucrative tourism industry that posted revenues of $38.8 billion dollars in 2008, the second-highest from the record $39.5 billion set in 2007. The buffering of flood and storm surges and preservation of plant and animal habitats will add to that impressive record. Farmland preservation adds to ecotourism and will prevent the decline in agricultural production of our economy.
Having lost more than half of its farmland since 1950, at the rate of 10,000 acres per year, New Jersey can not afford to sacrifice additional acreage to sprawl. By preserving valuable tracks of land, we are encouraging redevelopment and rehabilitation of neighborhoods in communities where infrastructure exists. By preserving the land that remains undeveloped, we will encourage the reinvestment of capital in areas where it will have a positive impact on our economy.
A recent study of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection revealed that there is at least a 10 to 1 return on our investment in open space acquisition. The passage of the $400 million open space bond referendum will cost each New Jersey household an average of $10 per year.
There is no group more qualified to understand long-term impact of development to the character of a community, and the quality of the life of its citizens than New Jersey’s county and municipal officials. More than half of the municipalities, and all 21 of our counties have passed local fees earmarked for open space. Without the financial partnership that will come through the re-collateralization of the GSPT the ability to collectively use the local funds will be greatly compromised.
Funding for Open Space needs Mayors and Council members to serve as its advocates. It is encouraging to know that Legislators from all regions of our state agree to the importance of the Open Space Bond Referendum. I passionately hope that, as you read this article, the referendum has passed with resounding support. Yet, regardless of the outcome of today’s battle, it is imperative that we continue to invest in open space funding so as not to impair the progress made over decades toward protecting open spaces, and the purity of our watersheds.
It is a race against time and I will continue to campaign for our open spaces. I will work with the citizens of New Jersey, and my colleagues, to preserve our natural resources, to proactively address the prospect of the overwhelming costs associated with providing clean water to our communities, and to support the economic viability of our agriculture and tourism industries. Together we will ensure the future economic vitality, and environmental integrity of the Garden State, and make a profound impact on future generations of New Jerseyans.
Assemblyman John F. McKeon is Chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee. He represents the 27th Legislative District. He also serves as Majority Whip of the New Jersey General Assembly.
This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 8, November 2009