By Thomas G. Dallessio
As the nation’s most densely populated state, New Jersey has a reputation for suburban sprawl development that belies its nickname, “The Garden State.” “You’re from Jersey? What Exit?” is both a joke and a truism for many. And yet, residents value open space, farmland, and historic preservation, and have voted numerous times to support funding to keep New Jersey green.
In the 1990’s, after decades of development pressure, many were left to wonder if we’d lose the opportunity to leave our children and grandchildren with a landscape that many of us have known and valued. Development pressure threatened New Jersey’s agricultural industry by stripping it of the land base critical to support the industry. Forests and other natural lands were converted into housing, offices, strip malls, and other development. Two million acres were left in New Jersey – what would be its future?
Voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution in 1998 to dedicate a portion of the sales tax for open space, farmland, and historic preservation. The following year, a law was enacted to implement the desires of New Jerseyans to preserve a million more acres.
In 1999, Governor Christine Todd Whitman signed the Garden State Preservation Trust Act, a law that set a goal of preserving one million more acres of open space, farmland, and historic structures and provided funding through a dedication of a portion of the sales tax to bond up to $2.5 billion to purchase land or development rights, (re)build parks and recreation areas, and restore historic structures. The law resulted in over 350 municipalities and all 21 counties enacting an open space tax to supplement state funds and led to planning initiatives that enabled applicants to gain priority for funding decisions.
Over a decade later, the State Legislature and Governor approved a new funding source (i.e., the Corporate Business Tax), and in 2019, Governor Murphy signed P.L. 2019, c.136 using CBT revenues for FY 2020 and beyond for Green Acres, Blue Acres, Farmland, and Historic Preservation. However, attention to open space, farmland, and historic preservation has waned as development pressure in suburban and rural communities subsided.
Fast-forward two decades and many of the same challenges remain. In June 2020, the American Farmland Trust (AFT) finalized a multi-year study of farmland loss across the U.S., “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States” identified the paradox we face:
- New Jersey ranked third among states with the most threatened agricultural land, but
- New Jersey ranked first for implementing policies and programs to stem the loss of farmland.
While 248,000 acres of farmland have been preserved since the program’s inception in 1983, making New Jersey a national leader in farmland preservation, we’re only half-way towards the goal of preserving the 500,000 acres needed to ensure a successful agricultural industry. Regarding open space, New Jersey has preserved 1.14 million acres for parks, wildlife areas, and other natural areas; however, significant lands with critical natural resources remain exposed to potential development with no real protection. And, year after year, we see Preservation New Jersey’s Top 10 List of Endangered Historic Places, reminding us that decay and disuse can rob us of our cultural assets. From publicly available GIS data, we’ve calculated that 171,800 acres of open space and 177,000 acres of farmland have been preserved since 2001. Thus, approximately 350,000 acres of open space and farmland have been preserved towards the goal of preserving one million more acres.
According to the 1998 Final Report of the Governor’s Council on New Jersey Outdoors, “New Jersey has 4.8 million acres of land. In some areas of the state, nearly 90% of that land has been developed.” With approximately 1.6 million acres currently remaining that are neither preserved nor developed, how can we best expand and accelerate the pace of New Jersey’s open space, farmland and historic preservation?
As we celebrate 40 years of NJ’s Farmland Preservation program, can we wait another 40 years to preserve enough land to maintain a viable agricultural industry? Climate change is impacting New Jersey’s water quality and quantity, with wetter winters, drier summers, and more extreme storms and precipitation as the new normal threatening freshwater resources. Michele Byers, the former New Jersey Conservation Foundation Executive Director, notes that land based natural solutions can help fortify the resiliency of urban and suburban communities. With a slowing pace of land preservation and Green Acres program acquisitions trending down, what modifications in funding, policy and process are needed to both increase the efficiency, equity and effectiveness of preservation programs?
Together with Bob Kull, Eric Harris, and Smitri, we produced a report, “One Million More Acres or Bust: A Quarter Century of Open Space, Farmland and Historic Preservation in New Jersey.” We employed a policy-focused approach to review the initial goals of the Million Acre Initiative and utilize quantitative and qualitative data to assess the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to open space/farmland/historic preservation in New Jersey, as well as propose policy recommendations for better land use, increased open space, farmland, and historic preservation, and more efficient, effective, and equitable green infrastructure investment.
Key recommendations from survey responses include:
- Focus on strategic priorities that address climate resilience, watershed protection, habitat corridors, and equitable access to open spaces for underserved communities
- Aid in support of agricultural viability, with an emphasis on assisting farmers in adapting to climate change and increasing availability of locally grown food
- Amend state laws to provide a wider range of benefits for all landowners who choose to conserve land, including tax benefits and attractive finance vehicles
- Create a “Woodland Management Program” aimed at purchasing easements on privately held, forested land – run in parallel with the farmland preservation program
- Incorporate plans to manage more regenerative programs for soil health and water quality
- Increase the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) budget for capital facilities and staff to manage more lands
- Increase stewardship funding to counties and municipalities for better care and management of already preserved lands
- Streamline the grant approval process to avoid delays
- Re-energize the message and the benefits of preservation along with environmental education in all schools
Key recommendations from research:
- Improve the administration of preservation efforts
- Utilize statewide, regional, and local land use planning to enhance preservation
- Enhance urban open space opportunities
- Recognize how climate change, environmental injustice, economic uncertainty, COVID, and demographic and technological changes present new constraints and opportunities
- Recognize the economic value of natural, agricultural, and cultural resources in land valuation/appraisals
- Recognize the economic value of natural, agricultural, and cultural resources for tourism and economic development
The effort to preserve a million more acres of open space, farmland, and historic sites has been big, bold, and aggressive. Approximately 350,000 acres of open space and farmland have been preserved towards the goal of preserving one million more acres. Despite significant progress, the vision is still far away, and current conditions suggest that the goal won’t be reached for several more decades. While some question the use of public dollars for preservation, a more comprehensive view should lead us to wonder, can we afford to wait?
Our research has provided solid evidence of advances in the overall goal of land preservation. However, there’s at least 750,000 acres to go. Survey responses and research lend insights into ways to improve the planning and execution of preservation programs on various levels of government and among the nonprofit and private sectors.
The challenges listed in this report are publicly felt problems: without preserved open space, farmland, and historic sites, the economy can’t grow, our environment will deteriorate, and our physical and mental well-being will suffer. These and other challenges listed above are publicly felt costs; therefore, solutions should be publicly supported.
Recommendations included in the report provide a solid foundation for discussion and action. While the data may be dissected and revised as new information is shared, it is indisputable that there’s more work to be done. There’s a need for better data collection and more public disclosure and engagement. More peer-reviewed scholarly research is also needed to accurately assess progress without bias or favor. We hope that policymakers and implementors will take care in reviewing this work and consider how to make the preservation effort more efficient, effective and equitable.