County Pushes to Prioritize More Open Space

October 10, 2017
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By Jay Cook |

With more than 17,000 acres of protected land and over 6 million annual visitors, the Monmouth County Park System has proven to be active in local land preservation.

But as commercial and residential developments continue to pop up, the county’s conservation arm is currently working on plans to increase its inventory, and input from Monmouth County residents is being sought.

With this year winding down, the Monmouth County Open Space Plan, last adopted in 2006, reaches the end of its lifespan. Throughout 2017, park system employees have been meeting with residents and local elected officials on how to better utilize and increase the open space footprint in Monmouth County for the newest installment of the county’s open space plan.

“It’s to set up our direction and priority, where we’re going to be looking, where we’re going to be active in our system,” said Paul Gleitz, the Monmouth County Park System’s planner.

A thorough, 19-question resident survey found on the park system’s website touches on questions about how open space should be utilized, the importance of benefits offered by the parks, and what types of recreation should be implemented, among others.

Gleitz said some benchmarks for total open space land in the 2006 plan were met, like the goal of operating 12 acres of open space per 1,000 people. Gleitz said in Monmouth County that figure amounts to about 8,600 acres.

A 19,000-acre goal of total property operated, based on a seven percent of developable land benchmark, was not met.

“These are just benchmarks,” he said. “They’re not the be all, end all. We don’t get an A-plus or an F. It’s just a kind of planning tool.”

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Gleitz said concrete figures for the 2017 iteration won’t be finalized until the end of the year, but one thing the county knows it wants is renewed focus on five specific ideals passed over in the 2006 plan: ecology; connectivity; equity; resiliency and sustainability; and historic preservation.

Joseph Sardonia, an MCPS supervising land architect, said his department has an ongoing discussion on piecing county properties together.

“One of the things we’re really trying to do here is to make and strengthen those connections, with other open space providers, with municipalities, to create those linkages within our parks,” he said.

Regarding the five additional areas of emphasis, Gleitz said the park system will work with branches of county government to achieve these new goals, but the initiatives within the plan could not happen without necessary funding, county officials have stressed.

On July 27, the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders unanimously authorized placing a referendum on the general ballot in November to increase funding to the Open Space Trust Fund, the park system’s main artery of funding.

Currently, a Monmouth County resident with an average assessed home value of $457,893 pays $68.68 into the fund. That equates to 1.5 cents per $100 of equalized value. The trust fund collected nearly $17.4 million this year.

The proposed 83 percent increase would push the rate to 2.75 cents per $100 of equalized value. The annual impact to the same average county homeowner would nearly double to $125.91 annually.

The 1.25 cent increase would provide an additional $14 million for the Open Space Trust Fund, a figure that Monmouth County Free- holder Lillian G. Burry said was necessary.

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“I believe that the open space we save, and preserve today, is what will be left when the county is fully developed,” she said in July.

Money in the Open Space Trust Fund is used to match funding for municipal projects, help with recreational improvements, provide funds for farmland preservation, and acquisition and development of new and current properties.

County voters approved increases to the Open Space Trust Fund in 1987, 1996, 2002 and 2006.

To spend money acquired through that fund, Gleitz said a necessary and up-to-date county open space plan must be in place.

“The more resources we have to work with, the better job we can do to bring new lands to the park system,” he said, “as well as keeping up to date with the parks we have already.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 5-12, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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