Preserving open space not always a walk in the woods

Freeholder, program win state award for land preservation

BY COLLEEN LUTOLF Correspondent

BY COLLEEN LUTOLF
Correspondent

Former Brick Township Administrator Scott MacFadden needed a third man.

It was 1997. MacFadden was working with the environmental conservation organization Save Barnegat Bay and its president Willie deCamp to preserve 275 acres of undeveloped land in Brick, the site of a former airport, along Kettle Creek near Drum Point and Cherry Quay roads.

For years, MacFadden and deCamp had discussed acquiring the land to preserve it. But the owner refused to sell. Without another partner, the idea went nowhere.

The opportunity the two men were looking for arrived in the ballot box that November.

Another area conservationist group, the Ocean, Nature and Conservation Society, petitioned the Board of Freeholders to ask county voters to approve a new tax dedicated to purchasing open space.

Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr., chairman of the board’s parks and recreation committee, said members had previously denied the request because they thought voters wouldn’t approve an additional tax.

“I was afraid it would go down,” he said. “It would make it that much more difficult to do park expansion.”

But the New Jersey Trust for Public Land had recently polled county residents on an open space fund through taxation. The poll indicated the referendum would pass, Bartlett said.

The poll was right. Ocean County residents began paying 1.2 cents per $100 of equalized property value toward the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund in January 1998, and eight years later, MacFadden and the Natural Lands Trust Fund received the 2006 Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award for land conservation.

MacFadden and deCamp had found their third partner.

Although the Republican council had just approved a $3.5 million bond to purchase the property, MacFadden said he and former Mayor Joseph C. Scarpelli visited Bartlett’s office before Election Day to pitch a partnership with the county.

“Brick was involved in purchasing the property right when we were putting the question on the ballot,” Bartlett said. “Brick publicly supported our referendum and asked if it passed, could we help with the purchase.”

The newly established trust fund closed on its first purchase — the Brick Township Airport tract — that December.

“The mayor and council were willing to take a hit, but our pitch was that the people of Brick shouldn’t have to, and we didn’t,” MacFadden said.

Ocean County Planner David McKeon, whose department oversees the program, said the cost of the tract was shared by the county, Brick Township and Save Barnegat Bay.

“They used our financial contribution to make it go,” he said.

The county purchased 167 acres for $1.4 million. Brick and Save Barnegat Bay purchased the remaining 108 acres for $2.1 million, McKeon said.

Brick taxpayers paid only $500,000 for the tract, MacFadden said.

“With the amount of development that happened in Brick over the years, it’s nice to save what’s left,” McKeon said.

MacFadden, now president of Birdsall Engineering in Eatontown, said that acquisition was one of his proudest achievements in his 23-year career as a Brick administrator.

For Ocean County land preservation, it was just the beginning.

The county Natural Lands Trust Fund has been used to acquire 5,525 acres on almost 60 pieces of property throughout Ocean County ranging from the 1.1-acre donation from Edward and Florence Olson on Sixth Avenue and Fischer Boulevard in Toms River to the 363-acre Good Luck Point in Berkeley.

The trust fund is also tapped to purchase development rights through conservation easements for farmland preservation, McKeon said.

Combined, the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust and the county’s Farmland Preservation Program has preserved 8,057 acres in Ocean County.

The award, judged by state Department of Environmental Protection officials, annually recognizes eight businesses, communities or individuals who have made significant contributions to environmental protection.

“I’m very honored Governor Corzine and [DEP Commissioner Lisa] Jackson recognized Ocean County and what it’s tried to do,” Bartlett said Friday. “It’s one of the best things we do in county government, but I’m prejudiced.”

How the program works

McKeon said he was glad to hear the program won.

“We knew we were doing good things and we’re pleasantly surprised the state agreed that Ocean County was the best one they looked at,” he said.”

The program’s structure is responsible for its success, Bartlett said.

County officials set up how the program would work before the question went to the voters, he said.

“We were going to continue to expand our parks, but we didn’t want to tie the two together,” he said. “It would be purely for land preservation, not for parks or golf courses or things like that. We didn’t want to take parks with it if it went down.”

Although residents may nominate a property, only municipalities and willing sellers can submit a property for consideration. The county is not interested in condemning properties for open space, Bartlett said.

The Natural Lands Trust Fund Advisory Committee, a nine-member board of public officials, environmentalists and developers, was created in 1998. Members visit properties, and consider environmental quality, development potential, local support, long-term maintenance issues and potential funding partners.

Each site receives two appraisals.

“We negotiate a price with a willing seller, and if we come to a negotiated agreement, we approve it,” Bartlett said. “We haven’t had a situation yet where a seller’s backed down. We also ask municipalities to endorse the purchase before it’s purchased. We thought of all the pitfalls there could possibly be.”

About half of the program’s acquisitions were a result of financial partnerships, 12 of them with the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit whose mission is to protect land for human enjoyment.

“Anyone who comes by here with money, they go to the top of the line,” he said.

Pooling dollars from multiple sources accomplishes more, Bartlett said.

When the program began in 1998, the trust fund pulled in about $4 million a year, McKeon said.

The trust fund now raises $10 million a year because of the increase in real estate values, he said.

Every year, the county must spend $10 million on open space, Bartlett said.

“We do it all in cash and we don’t borrow for any of it,” he said. “We collect $10 million a year and we spend $10 million a year.”

Some have suggested the county take the $10 million, borrow the rest and buy $100 million worth of land, purchasing all the natural space at once, Bartlett said.

“This program doesn’t owe a dime,” he said. “It’s purely cash. We know that’s a very conservative way of doing it. Our great opportunity here is that we have cash. So if a person wants to unload it fast, we can move fast. We’re going to get it cheaper.

After Acquisition

Christopher Claus gets paid to burn down trees.

Claus, Cattus Island Park’s chief naturalist, is also a board member and past president of Ocean, Nature and Conservation Society.

The 40-year-old organization is dissolving, but as a parks and recreation employee, Claus still has close ties to the properties acquired through the trust fund.

Prescribed burns are just one way the county has begun to manage some of the thousands of acres it preserved.

“Parks is responsible for managing some of that property,” Claus said.

Claus is helping with prescribed burns for several properties acquired through the Natural Lands Trust Fund, including the recently preserved Jamm Realty property on Hooper Avenue and Fischer Boulevard in Toms River, property on Route 532 in Waretown, and along Route 539 in Little Egg Harbor, Claus said.

Organization members met with Bartlett to suggest how to manage the properties in perpetuity.

“The amount of property is growing so greatly, we advocated for management and a specific amount of funds set aside for management,” he said. “There was a lot of push to close off the property for illegal uses like dumping.”

Grant money is used for the prescribed burns on some properties.

“It keeps nearby houses safe from wildfire,” Claus said. “And fire is an integral part of the ecosystem on pineland property.”

The freeholders decided to use in-house staff to implement some management practices, including barricading land being used for illegal dumping and adding security patrols, Claus said.

“The most important next step in management, and I’m wearing my Ocean Nature hat here, is to hire some sort of land management team to take on some of the projects that need to be done in those areas to keep them at least in their natural state,” Claus said.

The county staff consists of solid waste management, the road department and security, McKeon said.

“At this point, our in-house staff has a good handle on it,” he said.

The county closed on two properties over the past two weeks — a 58-acre tract in Stafford on Route 72 toward Long Beach Island for $2.5 million; and the 118-acre Potter’s Creek in Berkeley, a $5.2 million purchase bought with $1.4 million of Natural Lands Trust Fund money.