Land Acquisition Program
Open space is land which has remained undeveloped and largely in its natural state or has been altered to specifically serve recreational needs. The value and function of open space exists regardless of public or private ownership. Ownership becomes a factor in issues of access and availability for public use.
The value of open space is typically characterized in terms of its functions and can be considered in four broad categories as follows:
For both passive and active recreation, open land serves as parks and recreation areas, preserves and conservation areas, historic and cultural sites, and critical linkages and corridors for wildlife and public users.
Open space provides highly valued environmental protection functions. Among the functions are clean air and water; aquifer recharge; flood protection and storage; wildlife habitat including rare, threatened, and endangered species; wilderness; and biodiversity.
Quality of Life
Open space provides direct health and safety benefits related to recreation, environmental protection, aesthetic and visual relief, and preservation of cultural features and cultural heritage.
Open lands provide economic benefit in terms of agriculture, grazing, forestry, silviculture, and horticulture. Undisturbed natural systems such as wetlands are valuable breeding grounds for commercially valuable species. Property values of land adjacent to permanent open space often enhances value. The National Park Service reported that open space corridors and greenways increase jobs, enhance property values, expand local businesses, increase local tax revenues, and decrease local tax expenditures (NPS, 1990).
THE COUNTY PARK SYSTEM TODAY
Facilities now operated by the Park Commission include a wide range of opportunities for leisure pursuits. There are five golf courses, three driving ranges, a pitch and putt course, and a recreational putting course. Specialized facilities include a riding stable, an environmental education center, two tennis facilities, a swimming pool, and paddle boating. Horticulture activities include a rock formation and rare plant garden, an award winning rose garden, arboretum, and a sensory and fragrance garden. Eight general use and athletic parks offer picnic facilities, bike paths, athletic fields, and fishing opportunities. The park system also encompasses several natural areas offering more passive pursuits such as bird watching and hiking. The park system is home to 14,760 acres of open space.
A major financial commitment to open space acquisition has been made by the public. In 1997, an overwhelming majority of the public voted to double the Somerset County Open Space Tax from $0.015 per $100 to $0.03 per $100 of assessed property valuation. The amount of money generated from this tax was boosted from $3 million in 1994 to over $18 million in 2020. With the anticipated growth in the County's real estate assessment base, this revenue source is estimated to increase about $160,000 each year.
In addition to funding through the open space tax, Somerset County has secured funding through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres Program in the form of grants and loans. The County has also partnered with municipalities and non-profit organizations to cost share in the acquisition of land. The chart below identifies the land acquired since the implementation of the Open Space Trust Fund in 1993 and through the above mentioned programs.
STRATEGIES FOR ACQUIRING AND PRESERVING OPEN SPACE
With the support of the public and a well-organized funding system in place, the County is able to aggressively pursue the acquisition of land for open space preservation. Land acquisition can be accomplished by a number of methods, all of which have been utilized by Somerset County.
This is the outright purchase of full title and all rights by the County from the land owner. It allows for the protection and public use of the land.
Conservation Easements/Development Rights
A partial interest in the land is transferred to the County by donation or purchase. The rights acquired are less costly than total acquisition. The land owner retains ownership and the property remains on the tax rolls. The owner may receive some income and estate tax benefits. Public access could be negotiated and the easement remains in perpetuity.
Partnerships with Non-Profit Organizations
A non-profit organization can acquire and then sell property to the County, or contribute funding for the purchase of the property and transfer title to the County at no cost. A non-profit is often able to negotiate a property sale at a reduced price and to sell to the County at a lower than market value.
A private land owner or developer can convey all or a portion of a property at no cost to the County. The owner can take advantage of certain tax benefits associated with the donation.
BENEFITS TO LANDOWNERS FOR CONVEYANCE OF LAND FOR OPEN SPACE
Private citizens who choose to dedicate land to the County for parks and open space purposes could take advantage of a number of benefits.
Property is sold at less than fair market value by identifying the acquisition as part donation and part sale. There may be tax benefits to the seller for the donated value and a reduced cost to the County.
Conservation Easements/Development Rights
A partial interest in the land is transferred to the County by donation or purchase. The property owner retains full ownership of the land, but future development is restricted. The owner may receive some income and estate tax benefits.
The land is sold to the County, and the owner may continue to occupy the residence and a portion of the property for the duration of the owner's lifetime.
There are certain tax benefits available to a landowner associated with land donation.
If you are interested in selling or donating property to the County for open space purposes, please contact Somerset County at (908) 231-7509 for more information.