Save Barnegat Bay Leader Opposes Lands Trust Revision

By Juliet Kaszas-Hoch | Oct 16, 2019

Toms River — A county ballot question in the November election will ask voters to decide whether to expand the purpose of the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund to spend on matters other than land preservation. Wiliam deCamp Jr., longtime president of nonprofit Save Barnegat Bay, is firmly against the proposed change, stating in a recent op-ed that “the ongoing effort to restrain overdevelopment and conserve natural open space in Ocean County needs protection in the form of a ‘No’ vote on Ballot Question 1.”

The Natural Lands Trust Fund was established to purchase and thereby preserve open space in the county. deCamp noted in a letter published in the Asbury Park Press earlier this month, “In my capacity as president of Save Barnegat Bay, I served on the small committee led by the late Freeholder John C. Bartlett that in 1997 created this successful program. To date the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund has saved more than 32,000 acres of land in its natural state, as well as farmland, at 300 localities from destruction by developers in towns throughout Ocean County.”

If the referendum should pass, the open space tax would remain the same, but the money collected could be allocated for reasons other than open space acquisition.

The ballot question, in its entirety, reads: “Shall the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust, which was approved and established by referendum in 1997, be expanded to permit use of the Trust Fund not only for open space preservation purposes and farmland preservation purposes, but also allow for the acquisition, development and maintenance for recreational and historic preservation purposes?”

As deCamp points out, the language “may initially sound laudable,” but, “this ambiguously worded ballot question leaves open to future political interpretation what the words ‘maintenance’ and ‘recreation’ actually mean.

“In short, the fund’s founding purpose of conserving only land in its natural state, as well as farmland, would be abandoned and its monies made vulnerable to raids by other programs. The very purpose embodied in the name ‘Natural Lands Trust Fund’ would be undone. Less land would be saved.”

deCamp worries, in part, that the fund could be tapped to pay for the routine maintenance of dozens of county parks, which “could literally exhaust the program.”

Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines, liaison to the Natural Lands program, has stated that should the referendum pass, the primary aim of the fund would remain the acquisition of open space, “but what it does provide is more flexibility within the program. It would assist in our efforts to develop further some of our parks, like the Barnegat Branch Trail, for example. Also it would help in our efforts of historic preservation for such important buildings like the Cox House in Barnegat Township.”

“When we submitted the Natural Lands Trust Fund to the overwhelming approval by county voters in 1997, it was with the specific intent of exclusively protecting land in its natural state, which is essential to protecting water quality and our quality of life in Ocean County,” said deCamp. “Recreation was carefully considered and deliberately excluded as a praiseworthy goal that should be independently funded.”

Juliet Kaszas-Hoch

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