OCEAN COUNTY – In the last 20 years, the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund has successfully preserved close to 30,000 acres of open space.
In an effort to continue this progress, 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.
Residents will be asked to vote for this question on the ballot in November.
“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.”
According to Haines, the program’s first priority will always be acquisition of open space in Ocean County.
At the August 7 meeting, the Board Chosen Freeholders approved placing the question on the ballot.
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?”
According to Ocean County Freeholder Deputy Director John P. Kelly, the Natural Lands Trust currently 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.”
In the past, the program has been useful in saving environmentally sensitive areas, in providing buffers for Joint Base McGuire, Dix Lakehurst and for curbing some development.
Anthony Agliata, Ocean County Planning Director, noted 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 Natural Lands Trust Fund Advisory Committee was formally established in 1998 at which time general guidelines were developed for considering properties to be preserved. In order to be considered, a property must be formally nominated, purchased only from willing sellers, and the sale must have the approval of the local governing body.
In this way, the program was able to preserve 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.”