Freeholders Seek Change To Natural Lands Program; Amendment Will Not Increase Open Space Tax

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.”

She noted that the program’s number one priority will always be acquisition of open space in the County.

The Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved placing the question on the ballot during its Aug. 7 regular meeting at the Ocean County Administration Building in Toms River.

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.

“This is a very successful program,” Kelly said. “This proposed change builds on its success by allowing additional uses for the money specifically for recreational and historic preservation.”

He noted that the program has been beneficial in saving environmentally sensitive areas, in providing buffers for Joint Base – McGuire, Dix, Lakehurst and for curbing some development.

Under this program, Ocean County has preserved close to 30,000 acres of farmland and environmentally sensitive lands since it got started in 1998. Overall, almost 60 percent of the county’s 408,000 acres or about 230,000 acres have been preserved for open space including federal, state and county lands.

Anthony Agliata, Ocean County Planning Director, said that many counties and municipalities that have open space programs allow for the funds to be used for recreational and historic preservation purposes including almost all 15 municipalities in Ocean County that have an open space program.

“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.

The Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund Advisory Committee was formally established in 1998 at which time general guidelines were developed for considering properties to be preserved.

To be considered for the program, a formal nomination is necessary in order for a property to be acquired. Properties are purchased only from willing sellers and the sale must have the approval of the local governing body. The property, of course, needs to possess environmental characteristics that would contribute to the goals and objectives of the program.

Haines noted that the program has resulted in the preservation of such properties as the Forked River Mountains in Lacey Township allowing it to remain in the public domain and as open space into perpetuity.

“This property totaling almost 8,000 acres is surrounded by thousands of acres of preserved land and was the largest property in single private ownership left in the County,” Haines said. “By expanding the scope of the open space program we can use some of the money to better maintain these properties and provide additional recreational opportunities to our citizens and visitors.”

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