Open space at risk, activists warn - The Record (11/15/06)

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Open space at risk, activists warn
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
By ALEX NUSSBAUM
STAFF WRITER

When New Jersey reaches into its pockets to preserve farms and forests next year, it'll likely come up empty, open space advocates warned Tuesday.

A coalition of conservation groups urged lawmakers to renew the state's dwindling preservation fund or risk losing land to developers.

"In the race to save open space, you have to be in it to win it and right now, we're not in it," said David Pringle, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "That effort is now basically out of money."
At-risk parcels include: property along Lake Tappan in River Vale, Apple Acres and Stafford Pond in West Milford, and High Mountain in Oakland, activists said at a Trenton news conference.

New Jersey should spend $325 million a year to buy land and maintain what it has already preserved, the groups said. The money could come from borrowing or a tax on water use, outdoors equipment or some other source, they said.

They called on Governor Corzine and state legislators to craft a plan and put it before voters next November.

"The more we delay, the less chance there is that we'll be able to save some of these sites," said Jeff Tittel, director of the state Sierra Club.
The Garden State Preservation Trust, the $2 billion fund approved by voters in 1998, has committed all but $130 million, activists noted. If lawmakers keep to the spending pace of recent years, the rest will be allocated by next summer.

On Monday, legislators introduced bills to spend $73 million more in open space funds for projects in Alpine, Garfield, Oradell, Pompton Lakes and dozens of other towns around New Jersey.
Corzine and lawmakers from both parties said earlier this year they hoped to replenish the trust.

"The governor remains wholeheartedly committed to replenishing funds in the Garden State Preservation Trust so that future generations can enjoy open space and farmland," Corzine said through a spokesman Tuesday evening. "He supports efforts to put an initiative for additional funding on the ballot in 2007."

Earlier in the day, the head of the state Senate's environment committee said an initiative remained "a real possibility."

"We have consumed the Garden State Preservation Trust and the last dribs and drabs will be going out shortly," said Bob Smith, a Piscataway Democrat.

Smith supports putting a bond referendum before voters, but he also hopes to persuade legislators to approve a water tax that could generate $15 million or more each year to preserve land around water supplies. The tax -- 4 cents per 1,000 gallons -- would cost the average household $3.20 a year, he said.

"I think if you talk to the average citizen in the state they'd say they would happily spend three dollars and change a year to preserve this most critical resource," he said.

A task force of top legislators and administration officials, however, has been meeting to discuss how to structure new funding, Tittel said.
Environmentalists feel they need to turn up pressure now before open space funding gets sidetracked by budget negotiations early next year, he said.

Among other changes, activists hope this round of funding will bring more money to urban areas such as Hackensack and Paterson.

The trust, seeking to save as much land as possible, has spent more in rural areas where more acres were available at lower cost, Tittel said.
 
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