Most New Jerseyans are thrilled with newly-preserved open space in their town. It can mean great new places to hike, bike, picnic, play and enjoy nature. Preserved lands also bring priceless environmental benefits like protecting clean air and water, soaking up flood waters, and helping to stabilize the tax base by requiring little in services like schools and police.
When open space is acquired for preservation, it usually becomes “tax exempt” and is taken off the local property tax rolls. Although this loss is offset over the long run by savings on municipal services, the short term impacts can be hard on municipal budgets.
Decades ago, the state addressed this problem by establishing the “Payment In Lieu of Taxes” program, better known as PILOT. This program compensated municipalities for the loss of tax revenue by providing annual payments.
For a relatively small investment, the PILOT program returns a huge benefit by providing towns with an incentive to continue land preservation. This means clean drinking water, clean air, parks, trails and wildlife habitat for current and future generations.
PILOT payments proved especially important for rural communities with large percentages of preserved land.
But these payments are faltering. In 2010, Governor Christie proposed to phase them out over three years, leaving some towns with substantial preserved lands in the financial lurch.
The PILOT phase-out was halted after the first year due to widespread opposition of the program’s termination . But payments to the towns have been frozen at 2010 levels ever since.
As a result, today’s PILOT payments are based on a reduced payment scale, and on pre-2010 open space acreage. Tens of thousands of additional acres of open space have been preserved since 2011, but these increases have not been added into the payment formula.
Municipalities most dependent on PILOT payments include Washington Township (Burlington County), Woodland Township (Burlington), Downe Township (Cumberland), Maurice River Township (Cumberland), Lacey Township (Ocean), Harmony Township (Warren), Manchester Township (Ocean), Bass River Township (Ocean), Kinnelon Borough (Morris) and Little Egg Harbor Township (Ocean). All have substantial preserved land within their borders.
This is a critical issue that must be addressed.
For more than 50 years, New Jerseyans have embraced land preservation. Every public ballot question on land preservation – a total of 14 since 1962 – passed by a wide margin.
Despite this overwhelming public support, long-term reductions in the PILOT program will ultimately undermine support among local elected officials who must balance their municipal budgets. If local elected officials resist preserving additional land within their borders, it’s more difficult to move forward on even the most beautiful or environmentally sensitive lands.
Outright loss of PILOT payments to New Jersey towns would have a chilling effect on the open space preservation program. And our state legislators would have difficulty passing open space preservation measures in Trenton.
The open space PILOT program should be fully funded to uphold the state’s commitment to the towns and all of New Jersey’s residents who have consistently supported acquisition of public open space.
Senator Jeff Van Drew has introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 87, which proposes a voter referendum for a constitutional amendment that will guarantee full PILOT payments to municipalities, based on the Garden State Preservation Trust Act funding formula.
Please urge your legislator to support this resolution and push for full PILOT program funding. To find your New Jersey legislator, go to: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/legislativepub/contact.asp
And for more information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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