by Thomas G. Dallessio

Almost twenty-five years ago, the Governor’s Council on New Jersey Outdoors identified the need to preserve a million more acres of open space, farmland, and historic sites in New Jersey. The Chair of that Council, Former Assemblywoman Maureen Ogden recently passed away, leaving our state in a much better condition than she found it because of her passion for and commitment to the Garden State.

The Council’s report led to the adoption of the Garden State Preservation Trust Act (GSPT) in 1999, which provided the first stable source of funding for the purchase of land, development easements, recreation equipment, and other items related to parks, farms, and historic buildings. Bipartisan legislative agreement produced one of the most consequential and far-reaching laws ever adopted in New Jersey.

From a policy perspective, it’s hard to argue with this law’s success in transforming how we raise revenue on the state and local levels to preserve land. Prior to GSPT Act adoption, only a handful of counties and municipalities had open space/farmland/historic preservation taxes. Because the GSPT Act provided incentives for local governments that had dedicated revenue, all 21 counties and 370 towns established dedicated funds. Over the last decade, the State enhanced its policy by dedicating a portion of the Corporate Business Tax to move from bonding to a pay-as-you-go program. Recently, though, several counties and towns have scaled back their funding or shifted revenue to park maintenance, reducing the amount of funds available to preserve land.

It could be argued that the amount of land preserved has also been consequential. Most recent data published by the Garden State Preservation Trust identified 461,522 acres preserved between 2000 and 2020. Breaking down this data, we see that 279,550 acres of open space and 181,982 acres of farmland were preserved. Recalling that less than 38,000 acres of farmland were preserved prior to GSPT adoption, this is a monumental advance.

According to the NJ State Agriculture Development Committee, a total of over 240,000 acres of farmland have been preserved in New Jersey. The American Farmland Trust ranks New Jersey first in the nation for implementing policies and programs to stem the loss of farmland.

The challenge is that New Jersey also ranks 3rd among states with the most threatened agricultural land, and several reports and announcements by the NJ Department of Agriculture over the years identified the need to preserve at least 500,000 acres of farmland to ensure a successful agricultural industry. Using current data to project into the future, it will take another 30 years or more before we reach this important milestone. As the most densely populated state in the country with development pressures from New York and Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore, and the Skylands, can we afford to wait another three decades?

“We can, and must, strive to preserve the State’s farmland base, help farmers continue to be good stewards of the land, and create an environment where farm businesses can thrive now and, in the future” said NJ Agriculture Secretary Doug Fisher. “AFT’s report shows we’re on the right track, but we must continue to forge ahead to remain a model of the best farmland protection practices for many years to come.”

Policymakers must focus attention on how the State’s open space, farmland and historic preservation programs can be even more effective. Limited tax dollars and competing interests for the land require that government officials find new ways to engage landowners and citizens in the race for open space.

One clear opportunity is to use public communication tools to inform, engage, and coalesce public support. Updating the websites for the State, GSPT, Green Acres, SADC, and NJ Historic Trust and incorporating a running tally such as a thermometer or count-up clock can help residents better understand the status of these programs as well as drive interest in landowner participation. Signs along major roadways such as were installed on I-295 and I-287 at the outset of the GSPT Act (and remain today), and at transit stations and other public gathering spaces can also increase public engagement and support. An annual report card to the taxpayers of New Jersey would also be an important tool.

Bob Kull and I are undertaking further analysis using statewide and countywide information to identify challenges and policy recommendations for improving the delivery of the State’s open space, farmland, and historic preservation programs. Case studies and interviews will help fashion additional policy recommendations for the Governor, Legislature, state agencies, local governments, and the public to help reach the million-acre goal.

There’s an adage that goes, “What gets measured gets done.” Getting this done should be job #1. Future generations are counting on us.