Burlington Cty. (NJ) Conservation Program Praised

Burlington County, New Jersey, which created the state’s first farmland preservation program in 1985 and has protected more than 20,000 acres of farmland and natural open space, received national accolades today.

Having been on the cutting edge of land conservation for over a decade, Burlington County Freeholder William S. Haines, Jr. was one of six winners announced for the inaugural County Leadership in Conservation Awards sponsored by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and National Association of Counties (NACo). The award recognizes leadership, innovation, and successful implementation of park and recreational investment by county leaders across America. Burlington County, New Jersey’s largest county, was the only winner in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions.

Burlington County has been innovative in expanding its conservation efforts and investing in new conservation projects, particularly through an Open Space and Farmland Preservation Program expanded with a dedicated tax replacing bond issues in 1996. With a focus on the county’s agricultural heritage and natural resources, protection of waterways, and creation of cross-county trail systems, Bill Haines and the Board of Freeholders have also ensured its economic vitality.

“Now and for the past decade, our quest to preserve farmland, acquire open space, and build a new county park system has become more intense,” said Freeholder Haines. “The timing of this award coincides with the completion of two new parks in a few weeks along the Rancocas Creek, the 115-acre Long Bridge Park and a 170-acre expansion to our Historic Smithville Park.”

A dedicated property tax raises more than $13 million per year and qualifies the county for matching funds from the State’s Green Acres, Farmland Preservation and Environmental Infrastructure Trust programs.

The county also encourages conservation through grants to municipalities and nonprofits, installment purchase agreements, easements, and a Transfer of Development Rights program that promotes smart growth. The county keeps citizens informed on conservation issues through town meetings, local information sessions, press releases, mailings, and newsletters. “Counties across America are taking more responsibility for maintaining the character of their communities,” said Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land. “Burlington County’s thoughtful leadership represents the best of local leaders facing the challenges of growth, the need for open space and cherished landscapes and livelihoods, and the opportunity to maintain good quality of life.”

These awards come on the heels of the most successful voter-approved funding season ever for counties. In 2004, counties won voter approval for $2.97 billion in new land conservation funding, more than double any previous amount in history. The next biggest number was $1.55 billion in the year 2000. 51 county measures were on the ballot in 2004, which is also a new record; the previous high was 48 in 2000. County conservation funds approved represented 73 percent of all conservation funds approved in 2004, also a new record, with the next highest being 57 percent in 2001.

The winning counties—Burlington County, NJ; Dakota County, MN; Gallatin County, MT; Pima County, AZ; Pinellas County, FL; and Platte County, MO—were honored at NACo’s annual Legislative Conference in Washington D.C. during a luncheon today, presided over by TPL president Will Rogers, NACo president Angelo D. Kyle, and several members of Congress.

In addition to the recognition, each county will receive a travel scholarship to promote countywide land conservation programs as an effective solution to thoughtful regional growth issues.

“With the shape of the American landscape to be determined over the next few decades, there will be no second chances for communities that turn their back on today’s conservation challenges,” said Rogers. “These counties are demonstrating how communities nationwide are taking charge of their conservation future. We honor them today with the County Leadership in Conservation award to recognize not only their leadership, but also their innovation in managing growth thoughtfully—at a time when common-sense responses to accelerating growth are needed most.”

Since 1996, more than 125 counties nationwide have passed bonds and revenues to support investments in open space, parks, watersheds, recreational lands, and wildlife preserves.

“County officials understand the increasing need for land conservation programs,” said NACo president and Lake County, Il. Boardmember Angelo D. Kyle. “This new award, which NACo is proud to present with the Trust for Public Land, showcases the efforts of several county leaders and hopefully will spur more county officials to recognize the importance of land conservation programs.”

Highlights of the five other winning programs include:

  • Dakota County, MN (Nancy Schouweiler, Commissioner, Chair)—With 95 percent of its population crowded into one-third of its area, Dakota County was forced to reconcile its rapidly developing suburbs with diminishing farmlands. In 2002, voters approved a bond measure for the program, and the County has been able to leverage $22 million of county and other funds for fourteen projects.
  • Gallatin County, MT (Joe P. Skinner, Commissioner)—Over the past 35 years, Gallatin County’s population has increased by nearly 140 percent. With voters approving two $10 million open space bonds in four years, the County can now face the task of balancing mounting sprawl through the purchase of land and conservation easements. These efforts will preserve and enhance county farm and ranchlands, protect water quality of streams and rivers, and protect wildlife areas. This vision includes building upon 14 conservation projects either completed or in-progress, with the hope of one day preserving over 25,000 acres within the County.
  • Pima County, AZ (Raymond Carroll, Supervisor)—The biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert, rich with natural and cultural resources including 55 vulnerable species of plants and animals, makes the area in and around Pima County one of the top eco-regions in the world. But an estimated 10 square miles of desert land is lost each year to sprawl. In 2004, seventy percent of Pima County voters approved a $174 million bond, the largest ever passed by a local or state government in Arizona for land acquisition. The bond supports a long range plan to protect and conserve precious wildlife habitat, open space, greenways, and parks for the community.
  • Pinellas County, FL (Susan Latvala, Commissioner)—Pinellas County, the most densely populated and most urbanized county in Florida, and the second smallest county in physical size, has been at the forefront of Florida land conservation efforts for 60 years. With nationally ranked beaches, abundant wildlife populations, and sensitive ecosystems, Pinellas has bolstered its mission of conserving, protecting, restoring, and appropriately managing the natural systems and living systems within the county, by protecting 161 of 162 “red flagged” areas as of 2004. Pinellas voters have passed five ballot measures, creating millions of dollars in funding for their conservation program.
  • Platte County, MO (Betty Knight, Presiding Commissioner)—Platte, the second fastest growing county in Missouri, was faced with the task of trying to accommodate a growing population, while adhering to citizen preferences for more parks and open spaces. Platte Profile 2020, a plan for identifying county needs for a twenty year period, made apparent that expanding the county’s park system was a top priority of elected officials and citizens. Voters approved a one-half cent sales tax dedicated to parks and recreation and stormwater control, which will help Platte build a premier parks system, including a countywide, trail system, spanning more than 300 miles.

“Our partnership with counties—and the National Association of Counties in particular—is not new,” sad Rogers. “But our formal recognition of the best efforts to think strategically about how best to grow is an exciting opportunity to highlight conservation models for the rest of America.”

Three or more awards will be presented each year to officials (elected or appointed) from NACo-member counties. Awards are made in three population categories. The awards were presented in partnership with the National Association of County Planners and the National Association of County Parks and Recreation Officials. Additional information and nomination forms can be accessed on the Web at either www.tpl.org/awards or www.naco.org/conservationawards?or by calling 617-367-6200.

The Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit land conservation organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for generations to come. Since its founding in 1972, TPL has helped protect more than 1.9 million acres in 46 states. TPL depends on the support of individuals, foundations and corporations.?

The National Association of Counties (NACo) is a full-service organization that provides legislative, research, technical and public affairs assistance to county governments. Created in 1935, NACo continues to ensure that the nation’s 3,066 counties are heard and understood in the White House and Congress.