Cost to preserve open space is worth it

Conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan campaigned against the open-space bond issue. (BEN FOGLETTO / The Press of Atlantic City)


Some causes are worthy enough to overcome any amount of misguided opposition. Consider the effort to preserve what’s left of New Jersey’s open space.
Last week, voters passed a referendum to continue funding state purchases of open space and farmland. In doing so, they not only rejected an eleventh-hour campaign against it by Steve Lonegan, the conservative Republican activist who has made a hobby of defeating ballot questions (or at least taking credit for doing so). They also overruled the environmental lobbyists who had launched what amounted to an ill-timed attack on, um, environmentalism.
The $400 million referendum, which passed with about 52 percent of the vote, will replenish the nearly empty Garden State Preservation Trust, which pays to preserve open space, recreational areas, farmland, and historic sites in the nation’s most crowded state.
Its passage was remarkable in a year of economic distress and palpable voter anger, which led to the rare ouster of an incumbent governor. It was also reminiscent of the 2007 voting, in which a similarly peeved electorate passed another open-space referendum even as it refused to borrow funds for stem-cell research, normally a popular cause.
It seems New Jerseyans have learned from experience that unspoiled land is a precious and dwindling commodity that they are willing to pay for. This was the 13th consecutive success for statewide open-space questions in the past half-century.
Representatives of two state environmental groups, the New Jersey Environmental Federation and the state Sierra Club, had done their best to end the streak by opposing the ballot measure earlier this year. They argued that the Legislature should instead pass a new tax on water or something else and dedicate the revenue to open-space purchases.
Most of the state’s environmentalists supported the measure from the get-go, and the dissenters ultimately backed off after lawmakers decided to put the question to voters.
New Jersey’s mounting debt has caused deserved concern — much of it, incidentally, from the governor who was just thrown out. But some critics have become so hysterical in recent months as to suggest that all state borrowing should be rejected out of hand. Soon they’ll be demanding a return to the gold standard.
Unlike covering day-to-day expenses by mortgaging a tobacco settlement — as former Gov. Jim McGreevey did — buying open space is one of the most defensible uses of government bonds imaginable. The state is gaining a capital asset that would otherwise disappear, and it is seeking voter approval to do so. Critics of the measure have yet to explain why that’s any less desirable now than it was two, 10, or 50 years ago.
Yes, New Jersey has a debt problem created by decades of irresponsible and unnecessary borrowing. And it absolutely should avoid any further such borrowing while looking for ways to retire the accumulated burden. But forgoing even reasonable borrowing would only create other problems, some of which — such as the disappearance of the state’s last green spaces — would be permanent.