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Open Space

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Couple hiking the Sourland Preserve
Sunset view

General Information
In 1994, the Somerset County Park Commission and County Planning Board realized that the County was poised at the beginning of a new era. With the enactment of the County's dedicated Open Space Trust Fund, the County began to plan for the future accordingly. These plans, which were formalized in the 1994 Somerset County Parks Recreation, and Open Space Master Plan, remain as a valid foundation. Much progress has been made since then in attaining the high standards sought for the County parks and, due to aggressive preservation efforts, the County has exceeded its original open space goal of 10,500 acres. Again, the time had come to reassess and update the County's original goals.

County residents have a long history of supporting open space, farmland, and historic preservation. This is reaffirmed by the increase in the County's open space tax rate, the proliferation of municipal open space trust funds, the public's emphasis on growth management, and the Freeholders' decision to partner with the private sector in the creation of a ballpark. County residents have recognized the importance of the County Park Commission in sustaining the quality of life.

Somerset County has been identified as one of the most desirable places in New Jersey and in the country to live, to work, and to locate a business. The resulting development pressures and suburban land conversion present a constant challenge to Somerset County and its land preservation efforts. Although the State has established the goal of acquiring one million acres of open space and municipalities have decided to lower residential densities to reduce traffic and control school costs, developers are steadily trying to acquire buildable land to assure an adequate future land inventory. Many of the tracts of land targeted by developers are the very same tracts of land that the County would like to acquire. Opportunities for open space acquisition on the scale of a County park are diminishing. The result is that the race for Somerset County's open space has increased its pace since 1994.

The 2000 Parks Recreation and Open Space Master Plan Update proposes that Somerset County acquire land in order to bring the existing County parkland acreage up to the new mark of 20,500 acres. This new County parkland goal will be achieved by land acquisitions or easement purchases involving five initiatives: expansion of existing county parks; greenways along the County's major rivers and Second Watchung ridgeline; the Sourland Mountain; the Millstone River Valley; and new County parks in northern and southern Somerset County.

The map entitled Somerset County Parks Recreation, and Open Space Master Plan, presents Somerset County's overall concept of open space and parkland. The map shows, as a base, existing public parks and open space and private land currently in outdoor recreation use or permanently preserved for open space, such as preserved agricultural lands.

Master Plan Map

Click here to view the larger version Master Plan Map.
(The existing County parks are shown in dark green and proposed County parks are depicted in bright green.)

2016 Open Space
Advisory Committee
Annual Report

  E-mail Principal Planner, Land Acquisition
with any questions or comments

 

Land Acquisition Program

INTRODUCTION
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:

Recreational Opportunities
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.

Ecological Functions
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.

Economic Values
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
The Somerset County park system consists of 25 park areas totaling 13,302 acres, and this acreage is constantly increasing. There are five General Use Area parks, offering both active and passive recreation facilities; five golf courses; three Special Use Area parks; one Developed Natural Area park which features an environmental education center; and ten Undeveloped Natural Areas.

FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES
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 $19 million in 2010. 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.

Year
Total Acres
Total Cost

1993
1994
1995
1996
1997
1998
1999
2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
2016
Totals

325.33
489.80
700.56
423.21
201.37
272.85
433.36
615.64
313.71
556.27
125.50
140.45
161.04
243.65
394.03
147.30
890.54
200.58
912.50
302.34
432.87
135.28
304.10
105.27
8,827.55

$  5,551,000.00
5,835,000.00
7,935,553.20
1,907.974.20
227,863.00
5,782,085.64
10,524,480.00
10,323,923.51
6,064,200.00
7,464,289.14
1,346,016.00
4,596,960.00
13,487,648.10
1,060,247.00
6,685,212.20
8,715,526.00
36,035,999.00
4,925,820.00
25,701,189.00
7,925,314.10
$8,191,249.50
2,402,306.00
$6,754,786.09
$1,789,044.34
$191,296,740.04

 

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.

Fee Simple
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.

Donation
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.

Bargain Sale
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.

Life Estate
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.

Donation
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.