- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Conservation groups with competing interests are squabbling over how to spend the tax money that voters decided should be set aside for preserving open space.

Lawmakers waded into the question Monday at a state Senate environment committee hearing. The most vocal disagreement was on whether the state should award money to nonprofit groups to take care of public land.

Kelly Mooij, a vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society and the coordinator of environmental groups’ campaign to ask voters for the funding, said the state needs to do more than acquire natural land.

“If we don’t maintain the recreational value and the natural value for which we invested,” she said after the hearing, “it would be a disservice.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, objected, saying that sending taxpayer money to private groups could come at the expense of other causes, particularly in helping towns create new parks.

“We firmly believe that we cannot allow the money for an urban park to be sent up into the woods to go to take down trees,” he said.

There were other requests on dividing the money, expected to be about $70 million per year initially: The New Jersey Farm Bureau told a state Senate committee on Monday, for instance, that 40 percent of the money for land acquisition should continue to go to preserve farms. The American Littoral Society called for prioritizing a “blue acres” fund to buy up flood-prone land. The Washington Crossing Park Association called for putting money toward preserving historic buildings on parkland.

“These buildings can’t wait anymore,” Joe Carney, president of the Washington Crossing group, said in an interview. “They just can’t.”

Last month, voters approved shifting money from the corporate business tax from other environmental concerns - such as removing underground oil tanks and cleaning up polluted sites - to open space and farmland. The change takes effect in 2016. And starting in 2019, the share of the business tax going toward all environmental projects would rise from 4 percent to 6 percent.

Most but not all of New Jersey’s main environmental groups supported the question before voters - though some did so reluctantly. Gov. Chris Christie also opposed the measure, and said the referendum was an end-run around a potential veto from him.

Most agree that the difficult part is the battle over priorities. And those discussions could go on for up to a year before a law needs to be in place on how to divide the money.

“We have to do this legislation in the right way,” said Sen. Bob Smith, the Democratic chairman of the environment committee.

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