Funding for open space has run out. The last of the voter approved monies are being issued now and for the first time in decades we are out of open space funding.
These issues are especially important in the Highlands region. The area provides drinking water for 5.4 million state residents and is protected under the 2004 Highlands Act, which protects the most sensitive drinking water supply areas in the region from development.
Governor Christie has stated the Highlands was “based on a lie” because it does not compensate landowners, but has then turned around and cut funding for Highlands municipalities and implemented policies that undermine Highlands protections instead of putting in place programs to compensate landowners such as a water surcharge.
At the town hall meeting in West Milford this month, Governor Christie said he has not entertained the idea of a water surcharge but two years ago he said he was considering the fee. All he is doing is pandering to special interests and trying to weaken protections for our water supply.
A water surcharge would establish a long term stable open space funding source that would compensate landowners in the Highlands region for protecting land that the rest of the state depends upon for clean drinking water. Polls show overwhelming public support for open space preservation, fueled by wide spread support for protecting our drinking water sources. The public understands the connection between water quality and open space preservation and would not mind paying a small fee to protect our water supplies.
The water surcharge should be constitutionally dedicated so it could not be used for other purposes, establishing a direct connection between the fee and open space preservation. We should not be cutting other programs such as education, property tax relief, or the DEP to fund open space; that is why we need a dedicated source. We cannot keep depending on bonds for open space funds.
New Jersey’s three largest industries, pharmaceuticals, food processing, and tourism, are all water dependent and this fee would ensure they continue to have the water supply they need.
The cost of a small water surcharge is less than buying a couple of bottles of water a week, but would have a long lasting value in preserving open space and protecting water supply for future generations.
A water surcharge would increase municipal support of open space programs. This fee would help cover lost tax revenue resulting from the preservation of open space.
The Ringwood Environmental Commission in 1989, when I was a member, first came up with a water surcharge as a way to fund open space preservation and provide tax relief to watershed municipalities. The Sierra Club was one of first groups to support it. There were hearings on the proposal in the 1990’s and the surcharge had bipartisan support. It is more important now than ever as the best way to fund these open space programs.
A water surcharge would help fund the Blue Acres program which moves people out of harm’s way and protects families from the impacts of flooding.
A water surcharge would help promote water conservation as well. In the New Jersey American Water system about 12 or 13 percent of water is lost as it leaks from pipes. A surcharge would address those wastes.
Newark sells half its water to other communities for a profit so the surcharge would not have an undue impact on the residents of Newark.
The water surcharge would serve as a stable source of open space funding as well as helping to fund programs that help municipalities with preserved land. His first year in office Governor Christie slashed $10 million from the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, which helps municipalities make up for lost tax revenue when buying open space. The Governor has also cut Watershed Moratorium aid, costing towns millions of dollars.
The Governor should be coming up with compensation programs, such as a water surcharge, for municipalities instead of cutting those programs. For example, 30 years ago Newark paid West Milford $3 million on its watershed lands, now the city is paying about $800,000. Newark has repeatedly appealed the land valuation based on the Watershed Moratorium Act and conservation easements on their properties.
The Watershed Moratorium Act came about because United Water wanted to sell off watershed lands in Bergen County to their development arm. We do not want to see those critical water supply lands in West Milford turned over to development at the expense of water quality and the municipality should receive some funding for protecting those lands.
The Governor should support a water surcharge as a way to help communities, support open space, and provide equity to landowners. He has cut open space funding and municipal aid with no plans for the future. We are concerned that the Governor would rather eliminate protections in the Highlands region and cut aid to municipalities instead of supporting a common sense solution to open space preservation and municipal aid.