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New Jersey voters again being asked to approve spending tax money to preserve open space

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MEDFORD, New Jersey — Voters in New Jersey are being asked for the 14th time since 1961 to approve a way to pay for open space and farmland preservation.

In the previous 13 votes, the plan had support of leaders from both major political parties and always passed. While no organized opposition has come forward this year, it does have one notable opponent: Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

This year's measure isn't like the previous ones, the most recent of which came five years ago.

In all of the past referenda, voters approved borrowing to pay for open space preservation. In 1998 they also approved a constitutional amendment to dedicate $98 million annually for a decade from sales tax revenues for the cause.

This proposal takes a different approach. It calls for increasing the portion of the state's corporate business tax revenue set aside for environmental project from 4 percent currently to 6 percent in 2019 and using the bulk of that money to protect open space.

Under current law, 4 percent of the business tax revenue — or about $100 million last year — is dedicated to environmental concerns, including cleaning polluted sites and removing underground storage tanks. The proposal calls for scaling back those other funds and putting the majority of the environmental set-aside toward preservation. Under current tax collection rates, the preservation fund would bring in more than $70 million a year for the next four years.

In 2019, the portion of the tax revenue earmarked for environmental concerns would rise, and the portion of that money used for preservation would go up. The amount for the land funds would be an estimated $117 million. For land preservation projects, the state money is usually matched by other funds from county and local governments and private conservation groups.

Christie said in August that it was inappropriate for lawmakers to put this measure on the ballot when he opposes the funding mechanism that locks up state revenue and inhibits flexibility in future budgets.

"It's crazy stuff. But this is what happens when frustrated Democrats don't get their way," he said.

PHOTO: In this Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014 photo, Johnson's Corner Farm co-owner, Eric Johnson  encourages a yes vote on public question #2, a way to pay for open space and farmland preservation, at Johnson’s Corner Farm, in Medford, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
In this Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014 photo, Johnson's Corner Farm co-owner, Eric Johnson encourages a yes vote on public question #2, a way to pay for open space and farmland preservation, at Johnson’s Corner Farm, in Medford, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Advocates say preserving open spaces gives New Jersey residents places to escape congestion, connect with nature or learn about agriculture. Having undeveloped space can also help reduce flood risks because water has somewhere to go to be absorbed into the ground.

New Jersey is the nation's most densely populated state, but it remains the one nicknamed the Garden State. The state Department of Environmental Protection says 30 percent of the state's land is protected now and 32 percent is developed.

The preserved land includes parks and soccer fields in cities and suburbs, farms and Wharton State Forest, which takes up a major swath of the pinelands of southern New Jersey.

Keep It Green, a coalition of environmental, agricultural and other organizations campaigning in favor of the ballot measure, says that an additional 350,000 acres of farms should be protected from the possibility of development, something the farmland preservation program does by paying farmers for development rights. The group also says the state needs to preserve an additional 650,000 acres of natural space.

That long-term combined target of preserving an additional 1 million acres amounts to about one-fifth of the state's total land, or a little over half of what has been neither developed nor protected.

No organized campaign has emerged to push for "no" votes, but Americans For Prosperity, which generally opposes taxes, is against it, saying that preserving more land should not be a priority in a state wrestling with debt, how to fund public employee pensions and how to pay for road and bridge projects.

"We literally have almost as much land preserved in the state as the entire state of Delaware," said Mike Proto, a spokesman for the group's New Jersey office. "You're looking at almost half of our land would be off-limits."

Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, spoke last week at an event in Medford to promote the referendum. He said preserving his family's farm in Somerset County's Franklin Township meant that they didn't sell to a developer looking to put in condos. He said his community would have needed to build a new high school if his land were developed.

"For purely economic reasons" Suydam said, "it was a smart move for the town, state and the county to preserve my farm."

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