37. Preserved and Developed Land

The rapid suburbanization of New Jersey is cutting down on the open space that we need for recreation, agriculture, species habitat, and refreshment of the spirit. Maintaining a balance among conflicting land uses is a key element of sustainability. Public opinion polls and voting trends show that many New Jerseyans feel that there is not enough open space in the state.

How are we doing?

As Figure 37.1 shows, both developed land and protected land have increased steadily in New Jersey. As Indicator 12 shows, New Jersey has about 1,066,000 acres of permanently protected open space, accounting for about 22 percent of the state’s total of 4,746,880 acres and meeting the 2002 target. If we maintain the preservation rate of the 1990s we will meet the preservation goal for 2008 of 1,354,000 million protected acres.

Development has, however, continued apace. Between 1992 and 1997 the amount of developed land increased by 15 percent, from 1,564,600 acres to 1,778,200 acres. These figures are based on the US Department of Agriculture National Resources Inventory, which is updated every five years. Data for 2002 are not yet available; however it is likely that the amount of developed land continued to increase steadily over the past five years.

What is behind these figures?

As discussed in Indicator 12, the substantial increases in preserved land are an outcome of the state’s aggressive land conservation programs and the willingness of voters to support bonds for open space purchase in many municipalities and counties. There is considerable debate over whether we should allocate land preservation resources where we can get the most acreage for our dollars, or where open space is most scarce and therefore most in need (but also usually most expensive).

The increases in developed land are not surprising given the population growth in the state. In the absence of effective policies to change our land use patterns, we could approach a time when there is little unprotected open space left in the state, and almost all land is either protected or developed. Farmland is under particular pressure from rapid development, as Indicator 35 shows. The financial returns to New Jersey agriculture are fairly low. Farmers often stand to gain more from selling their land for development than they do from cultivating it, and sometimes must do this to fund their children’s education or their own retirement. Unless the public bears that cost through public programs to purchase farmland or development rights, even more land will shift from agriculture to subdivisions or shopping malls.(1) As of 1998, only 7 percent of New Jersey farmland was protected from development, leaving 93 percent open to future development.

What else would we like to know?

To understand the impact of our open space efforts, we would like to track what kinds of lands we are protecting, and where they are. We do not know, for example, whether we have preserved a full cross-section of native habitat and ecosystems.(2) This information will better enable us to assess whether we are really achieving our goals, or whether significant regions or types of habitat need redoubled efforts. To understand land development, we would like better detail on the relationship between increases in population and increases in developed area, particularly whether more land is developed per person now than in the past.