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New Jersey shirks its duty to support land preservation

New Jersey shirks its duty to support land preservation

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For one of the most urbanized states in the nation, New Jersey has an outsized amount of preserved land. A decade ago, the U.S. Geological Survey found that 18.4% of the state is permanently protected natural land with a mandated management plan — well above average for both eastern states and others its size. Another 1,400 tracts have been protected since.

That’s good, making the burdens of urbanization more tolerable, increasing recreation and providing a refuge from daily anxieties that has been helpful and heavily used in the pandemic.

There is a downside, though, for the rural residents of towns and counties where this land has been acquired — much of it in South Jersey. Preservation blocks development that has enriched other areas, leaving residents poorer. And that causes a host of health and social problems.

This motivated state government, when it created the Garden State Preservation Trust in 1999, to include a provision to provide a little compensation to municipalities for the loss of developable lands.

The payments are a fraction of the taxes that local governments lose, let alone the prevented gains from employment and a stronger economy. For example, the company that wanted to develop the former Holly Farms in Millville would have paid the municipality $600,000 a year, but the land was preserved instead. In nearby Maurice River Township, where more than half of the land has been preserved, trust fund compensation payments would amount to just $348,413.

They would, that is, if the state bothered to pay even those in full. For a decade, administrations have cut the payments by a third — diverting the money to the general budget to help support bloated government and reward political supporters.

The Garden State Preservation Trust, meanwhile, still has plenty of tax money to keep acquiring and maintaining land.

In November its board approved spending $78 million — bringing total spending the past two decades to $2.7 billion and leaving it with $220 million in the bank. The trust is funded by a piece of New Jersey’s heavy corporate business tax, and this year its share is $114 million.

Last year, the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature looked like they would finally start doing the right and small thing. Their budget restored compensation to what was its full level in 2010 (still leaving 1,400 land acquisitions since then without an offset for the losses they caused).

But then Murphy, as part of his panic over the possibility of getting less tax revenue due to pandemic restrictions and reactions, canceled the funding restoration — long after municipalities had counted on it and included it in their annual budgets.

In his budget proposal this year, Murphy still would defy the Garden State Preservation Trust agreement and provide only two-thirds of the 2010 level of funding. This despite the governor having borrowed $3 billion for current expenses the state didn’t need and soon will receive $6.4 billion in stimulus money borrowed by federal Democrats.

The governor and legislators look cheap and petty for not providing what is only about $10 million to compensate for the effect of the state having taken 460,000 acres from municipalities. That’s about one-thousandth of those borrowed billions, and there’s no reason the Garden State Preservation Trust funding shouldn’t be in this and every year’s state budget.

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