To the Editor:
Across New Jersey, voters have answered yes to a municipal ballot question asking whether local officials should improve or buy up more open space, even if it meant raising their taxes, affirmative responses consistent with passage of other local questions and all three statewide referenda. Voters in the Bergen County communities of Upper Saddle River, Demarest and Teaneck, along with Lafayette in Sussex County, likewise cast yes votes in favor of open space initiatives. Voters in Monmouth and Ocean County also voted in favor of open space initiatives.
The people have spoken, and they want to protect and preserve their open space. Residents in Bergen and Sussex county have voted in favor of investing in open space. This is critically important because many towns in these counties have already succumbed to destructive overdevelopment. One of the best ways to stop inappropriate development and protect these towns from sprawl is by increasing open space funds. Protecting open space means less traffic, less water pollution and flooding. It also helps protect the character of the town, the taxpayers, and the quality of life. New Jersey has the highest property tax in the nation, but people are still willing to raise their own taxes to preserve open space because of how critical it is.
According to the Garden State Preservation Trust, the state of New Jersey acquired 453,499 acres of open space from FY2000 to FY2019. Bergen County was responsible for acquiring 1,956 acres, of which 335 acres were farmland and 1,621 acres were for Green Acres. Out of the total land preserved by Bergen County, Saddle River was responsible for 17 acres of land.
Monmouth County was responsible for acquiring 19,523 acres and Ocean County acquired 17,514 acres of land. Jackson preserved 2,532 acres of land while Middletown acquired 383 acres of land.
Heading into the election, local officials, environmentalists and other open space advocates said that parks, nature preserves and easements purchased to prevent building on farmland were increasingly appealing amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the outdoors viewed as a relative refuge from the virus.
There has been a greater appreciation for parks and open space during the pandemic. Increasing open space funding will help protect and expand those public outdoor spaces. In New Jersey, 19 counties and 230 towns have passed open space funding because they understand the importance of it. Open space trust funds because it makes towns more valuable and saves money in the long-term. Properties near open space are 20% more valuable than those in densely populated areas. It also helps protect against flooding and stormwater runoff.
Open space taxes provide a source of funding that townships can use for preserving, improving, or purchasing open space. This helps increase property values in the town as well as discouraging overdevelopment. It saves taxpayers money because it doesn’t require more town services like sewers, roads, or schools.
We hope other counties and towns will follow so that we can move forward on protecting and preserving open space in New Jersey for future generations.
Jeff Tittel, Director
New Jersey Sierra Club