Open space jackpot

If Camden County goes ahead with a proposed land purchase in Winslow Township, an astonishing 26 percent of its total open-space spending will have been on properties linked to one politically connected developer.

County officials hope this will be seen as no more than a slightly awkward coincidence. As the chairman of the county’s open-space committee explained, “Politically powerful people own property all over the place.” Or at least they did until the county took so much of it off their hands.

Since 2008, The Inquirer reported last week, Camden County has paid $6.3 million for two properties linked to Joseph Maressa Jr., a Democratic benefactor and son of a former state legislator. It’s now considering buying a third for $3.2 million.

It’s an impressive tally given that the county has spent a total of $33 million on open space since its fund was established 12 years ago. That means Maressa’s take already approaches a fifth of overall preservation spending, and it could exceed a quarter.

Meanwhile, the Maressa family has contributed more than $130,000 to Democratic candidates and committees since 1998.

The Democratic-run county has not only spent a significant chunk of its open-space revenue on Maressa’s companies. It’s done so at prices that look remarkably good amid the real estate meltdown of recent years.

For example, Maressa’s Pump Branch Developers paid $1.5 million for a 68-acre property on the edge of the Pinelands in February 2008. Five months later, Camden County bought it for $5.8 million.

Pump Branch did have plans to build 99 homes on the property and sell it to another developer for more. But how much could that have meant in the plummeting housing market of 2008?

The 80-acre property now under review was acquired by Cedar Brook Properties between 2003 and 2007 for $2 million. Now, after the bust, the county is proposing to buy it for $1.2 million more.

Several state and county officials defended these as arm’s-length deals approved by an open-space committee armed with independent appraisals. An official with the state Green Acres program, which would contribute to the latest proposed purchase, said, “It’s a process, and we feel very comfortable with the process, to make sure we’re protecting the taxpayers.”

But the taxpayers have little cause for comfort with this process. There’s a clear appearance of a conflict of interest here: The Maressas avidly support the Democrats; the Democrats run the county; and the county avidly supports the Maressas.

The county freeholders need to change the process. Reviewing the deal under consideration was a start. Going forward, they should make political contributors ineligible for open-space funds, lest they further taint the worthy cause of preservation.