The State We’re In 11/8: Open space trust funds keep New Jersey green


By Michele S. Byers

You’ve probably heard the bad jokes about New Jersey’s traffic, toxic waste, turnpike exits and bad smells.

But what about the Garden State’s image? Those of us who live here know that there’s a lot of green in New Jersey. This state we’re in is the most densely populated in the nation, yet about a third of our land is preserved as open space and farmland. You’re rarely far from a park, nature preserve or farm.

That’s no accident. New Jerseyans – including urbanites – love their green spaces and enthusiastically support open space preservation every chance they get.

According to the “LandVote” database compiled by the Trust for Public Land, 440 of 562 state, county and municipal open space ballot questions – nearly 80% – have been passed by voters in the last 30 years.

Thanks to these voters, hundreds of municipalities and all 21 counties have special open spaces trust funds to finance purchases of land for parks and recreation, and preservation of farmland and historic sites. And local projects often get matching funds from the state Green Acres Program.

As our state has learned, communities with open space are more livable and healthy. Preserved open space gives residents places to walk, bike, picnic and enjoy nature. Open spaces provide homes for wildlife, reduce flooding and improve air quality by filtering out pollutants. In cities, green spaces muffle noise pollution and reduce the “heat island” effect from asphalt and concrete.

This November, six municipalities – Hoboken, New Brunswick, North Caldwell, Verona, South Brunswick and Beach Haven – had open space questions on their ballots. Interestingly, all of these municipalities are urban or suburban.

Hoboken – City residents decided on two ballot questions affecting the open space trust fund established in 2007. The first asks residents if they want more flexibility on how much of the fund can be spent on development of park facilities. The second question was to increase the open space tax from 2 to 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, and would allow funds to be spent on historic preservation. The increase would help the city purchase the former Union Dry Dock property on the Hudson River waterfront and convert it into public open space.

New Brunswick – The ballot question asked residents if they wanted to establish the Hub City’s first open space trust fund with a tax levy of 1 cent per $100 of assessed value. The fund would be used for repairing and improving existing parks, building playing fields for youth, creating neighborhood playgrounds, preserving open space to help prevent flooding and protecting the water quality of the Raritan River and its tributaries. It would cost the average household $2.25 per month, and strict accountability measures are included to make sure the funds are properly spent.

North Caldwell – The ballot question asked voters in this Essex County town if they wanted to establish an open space trust fund for 15 years, supported by a tax of 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. The fund would help pay for the acquisition, preservation and restoration of Walker’s Pond park.

Verona – The ballot question asked voters to establish a tax of 2 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Although this suburb has little undeveloped land, an open space fund would allow the town to potentially create open space by buying partly-developed lots and demolishing structures. Funds would also be used to maintain existing open space, including playing fields.

South Brunswick – This Middlesex County town has had an open space trust fund since 1996. The ballot question asked voters to increase the open space tax from 4 to 7 cents per $100 of assessed value, because the current tax doesn’t generate enough funds to acquire new properties while repaying debt from previously preserved properties. Six of the 7 cents would be dedicated for land acquisition, while 1 cent would be used for developing parks.

Beach Haven – This small Long Beach Island town asked voters if they wanted to create an open space tax of 1 cent per $100 assessed value. Officials said the tax would allow the borough to potentially preserve any open space that comes on the market, and funds could also be used for improving parks and playgrounds.

Parks, playgrounds, trails, meadows, forests and farms are great for communities and the environment. But they also make economic sense. Preserved land improves the value of surrounding properties, and saves tax dollars on infrastructure and services. As it’s been said many times, “Cows don’t go to school.”

Kudos to these six municipalities for their forward-thinking vision and commitment to the health and quality of life of their residents.

To learn more about the benefits of open space, visit the New Jersey Keep It Green website at

For a listing of all of New Jersey’s open space votes since 1988, visit the LandVote database at

And for information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at [email protected].

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.