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Smith-Sweeney Bill To Authorize Open Space Bonding Approved In Senate

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senate Environment Committee Chairman, Senator Bob Smith, and Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney which would give voters in November the option to approve up to $400 million in open space borrowing was approved by the Senate today by a vote of 26-7, receiving final legislative approval.

“Open space preservation is at the very core of maintaining our quality of life in the Garden State,” said Senator Bob Smith, D-Middlesex and Somerset. “Well-maintained parks, pristine forests, protected farms and untainted watershed are a necessary alternative to overdevelopment and suburban sprawl. We owe it to future generations of New Jersey residents to protect at-risk open space, and ensure that the garden stays in the Garden State for many years to come.”

“With the current downturn in property values, developers are purchasing parcels of land for a fraction of their true value,” said Senator Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem. “However, the reduced property values also mean New Jersey can get the most out of every public preservation dollar we spend during this difficult economic crisis. We owe it to the voters to give them an opportunity to have a voice in the State’s preservation efforts, and hopefully, they’ll once again approve the reauthorization of open space funding as they’ve done so many times before in New Jersey.”

The bill, S-1858, would authorize the State to borrow $400 million, subject to voter approval, to provide funding for open space preservation programs, such as the Green Acres public recreation and conservation program, farmland preservation, the Blue Acres program for flood plain and watershed land, and historic preservation. Under the amended bill, $218 million would be spent on the Green Acres program, $146 would be spent on farmland preservation, $24 million would be spent on Blue Acres preservation, and $12 million would be used for historic preservation purposes. Voters would have an opportunity on Election Day to either approve or deny the bonding through a ballot question.

“While many folks, including myself, would ultimately prefer a dedicated funding source for open space preservation in New Jersey, we have to recognize the current economic and political realities,” said Senator Smith. “Unless voters approve stop-gap funding for open space preservation this year, the fund will lapse, and many opportunities to protect land from over-development and sprawl will vanish. I hope that the environmental advocacy community will all come together at the end of the day to work for voter approval of this bonding, because it’s crucial to get us to a point where we can reach the compromise on dedicated funding that everyone’s looking for.”

Both lawmakers added that in a recent poll, commissioned by The Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy, nearly 6 in 10 New Jersey voters polled said they would support a ballot question giving the State the authority to bond for open space preservation efforts. Eighty percent of voters polled said they want their State legislators to support legislation to give voters a say in November.

“Opponents of our bill cite the possibility that voters might reject an open space bonding initiative in the current economic climate,” said Senator Sweeney. “I tend to give voters more credit than that, but in a democracy, who are we to deny the will of the voters? An overwhelming majority of New Jerseyans, including myself and Senator Smith, believe the electorate deserves a voice in open space funding in New Jersey. We will both work very hard this fall to make the case to the voters that funding for open space preservation is the right vote for the future of New Jersey.”

The bill was approved earlier today by a vote of 66-9, with 3 abstentions. It now heads to the Governor to be signed into law.

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