Ocean County Freeholders Seeking to Raid Open Space Funds to Fund Pet Projects, Development

Summer forest landscape in sunny weather - forest trees and narrow path lit by soft sunlight. Forest nature in sunny day, diffusion filter

TOMS RIVER-Up until now, Ocean County’s “Open Space Tax” has been used to purchase open spaces for recreational use and preservation of Ocean County’s diminishing supply of natural habitats.

Now, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders is asking voters this November to expand their ability to spend open space funds on things other than open space.

The Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund has successfully preserved close to 30,000 acres of open space since it was formally established in 1998.

In November, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders will ask voters to amend the program in order to expand its purpose allowing the trust fund to be used for costs of acquisition, development and maintenance for recreational and historic preservation purposes.

“This proposal will not increase the open space tax that is currently in place,” said Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines, who serves as liaison to the county’s Natural Lands program. “But what it does provide is more flexibility within the program. “It would assist in our efforts to develop further some of our parks like the Barnegat Branch Trail, for example,” she said. “Also it would help in our efforts of historic preservation for such important buildings like the Cox House in Barnegat Township.”

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What Haines means is that less money will be spent purchasing open space land tracts going forward and the Freeholders will be able to use money collected to purchase open space land for pet projects that are in need of funding.  This action comes as developers continue to buy up all available land in places like Jackson Township and Northern Toms River to build high density development projects.

Haines pinky swears that the program’s number one priority will always be the acquisition of open space in the County.

Now it’s up to voters to decide whether or not they trust their Board of Chosen Freeholders with allocating those funds properly if allowed to have more flexibility in how they spend the money they collect from taxpayers each year.

We’ve all been told the Garden State Parkway, built in the mid-twentieth century will have tolls only until the cost of the road is paid for…look at it now.  In past history in New Jersey, politicians have a bad track record of keeping promises once they start raiding allocated accounts for other purposes, just look at the state’s pension fund which has been raided by numerous governors.

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The ballot question will read: Shall the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust, which was approved and established by referendum in 1997, be expanded to permit use of the Trust Fund not only for open space preservation purposes and farmland preservation purposes, but also allow for the acquisition, development and maintenance for recreational and historic preservation purposes?

Ocean County Freeholder Deputy Director John P. Kelly said currently the Natural Lands Trust only allows for Trust Fund money to be used to acquire and maintain land for the purpose of open space preservation or for the preservation of farmland.

“The Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund currently allocates 1.2 cents per $100 of assessed land for the open space tax,” Agliata said. “There will be no increase to taxpayers. The question only expands the use of the existing Trust Fund.”

The Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1997 posed a question to the county’s voters on whether a trust fund to preserve natural lands should be established. The funds come from a dedicated tax of 1.2 cents per $100 of equalized property value. Establishing the fund received the support of voters in all 33 municipalities.

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Now, more than ever, the National Lands Trust Fund is needed to save Ocean County from over development more than ever before, reallocating those funds to pay for general operating budget items such as historic restorations and park development would decrease the amount of funds available to stop developers from building on existing open spaces.

The Natural Lands Trust Fund Program was established to acquire and maintain environmentally sensitive lands, natural areas or open spaces that would generally remain in their natural state and for the preservation of farmland. The objective of the program, is to establish of a system of protected lands which, in combination with the Farmlands Preservation Program, enhance the quality of life in Ocean County by:

  • Helping to maintain the County’s rural characteristics;
  • Protecting critical environmental resources and water supply;
  • Maintaining and enhancing active agriculture;
  • Buffering areas that are not compatible with development.