New Jersey lawmakers are considering a variety of proposals to support the Garden State Preservation Trust, which is expected to run out of funding this summer.

Gov. Jon Corzine addressed the issue of funding for open-space preservation last week during his state of the state address and urged legislators to work on a ballot question for the November general election to replenish the GSPT.

The trust promotes the conservation of parks, forests, historical sites, and farmland. Officials anticipate using the remaining funds by the end of fiscal 2009, June 30, according to GSPT executive director Ralph Siegel.

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, who chairs the General Assembly's Environment and Solid Waste Committee, and his staff are currently working on legislation to create a ballot question that would replenish the trust once funds run out, according to chief of staff Ron Botelho.

That proposal calls for a fee of 40 cents per every thousand of gallons of water used for consumptive use, which would generate $125 million to $150 million per year to help support the GSPT. Current plans do not include leveraging that proposed revenue stream, though Botelho said McKeon is open to bonding.

In 1998, voters approved $1.2 billion of borrowing over 10 years to fund the GSPT. Those bonds were secured by an annual appropriation of $98 million from sales-tax revenues. In November 2007, voters approved $200 million of additional bonding to keep the program afloat through fiscal 2009.

"[McKeon] hasn't taken a strong stand saying, 'No, I absolutely will not support a bond,' but certainly his preference is a permanent source of funding, if that can be accomplished through some other means," Botelho said. "He's certainly open to and wants to have a discussion as we head down toward the budget period, which is when you really have to have something prepared to get it on the ballot, given the constitutional requirements."

The Legislature has until June 30 to pass a bill for November's ballot.

McKeon's proposed ballot measure stems from an earlier bill. In September, McKeon filed A. 3215, which would require public water utilities to implement societal benefits charges, with those revenues supporting the GSPT for land conservation programs that protect water resources. That measure currently sits in committee.

Assemblyman Douglas Fisher, D-Salem, who chairs the General Assembly's Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said he prefers additional bonding backed by sales tax revenue to replenish the GSPT as opposed to water taxes or allocating funds from the state budget. Like McKeon, Fisher supports placing the issue before voters.

"It appears that revenue bonds are the only way we're going to be able to secure the money for the [GSPT] and we'll be pushing for a question to be put on the ballot in this year's election," Fisher said.

Fisher and McKeon believe keeping open-space programs alive is necessary to preserve land in the densely populated state for parks, farmland, and forestry.

Since 1999, New Jersey, through the trust, has spent roughly $200 million each year on open-space initiatives and Garden State voters have consistently approved state-level land-conservation programs since the early 1960s.

"Obviously these are tough times, but it's also a very critical time in terms of the pressures of development ultimately taking over and not having the opportunity to preserve land such as farms and parks and open space," Fisher said.

Gregg Edwards, president at the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey, an independent group that focuses on state fiscal policy, said officials should evaluate the state's open-space needs before replenishing the trust, as the economic recession will slow development and could postpone the need to buy land to preserve open space for a while.

"In this economic climate, I don't see any rush to put money aside for open-space preservation when there's not much going on anyway," hes said. "It's not like there's a lot of development pressure being felt where you need a lot of cash to buy up land that might be developed."

Conversely, Edwards pointed out that the state currently uses GSPT funds to compensate landowners in the Highlands in northwestern New Jersey where laws restrict development and residents, by law, would still need to be reimbursed for the cost of the restrictions.

In the highlands preservation area, home development is limited to one house per 88 acres, according to David Epstein, president of the Land Conservancy of New Jersey.

While development may be on the downturn, Epstein said now is the time to take advantage of developers' willingness to sell land to conservation organizations as real-estate values are decreasing.

"We are in the midst of a very severe real estate downturn," Epstein said. "And by continuing the acquisition of these large, open parcels, we're actually helping to improve the real estate market. We're actually helping the market by taking excess inventory out of the market and bolstering prices of the people who still hold land."

Alison Mitchell, policy director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, agrees and said this is the ideal time to purchase land at lower prices.

"Now is the time to buy, because prices are falling and the competition isn't as tough," she said. "So as far as an investment using public dollars, now is the time to make the investment. You get more for your money."

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