Conservation easement measure heard in committee

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee took testimony on a resolution Thursday for a constitutional amendment  that would require the Legislature to enact laws providing for reduced property taxes for privately-held land permanently preserved as open space.

This is one of two related proposals, the other dealing with farmland assessment program changes, that are working their way through the legislature at the same time.

In general, the tax breaks for farmland assessment are approximately 90 percent, and the tax breaks for the conservation easement, are closer to 50 percent.

The primary sponsors of SCR107 are Sens. Jennifer Beck, (R-12), Red Bank, and Steve Sweeney, (D-3), West Deptford.

Beck said that Rutgers University had studied the issue and projected that if the farmland assessment revenue per acre threshold was  raised from $500 to $1,000 then there are 47,000 acres today that would not qualify for that program, and possibly those landowners would opt for the program her resolution proposes for conservation easements.

Beck said that if those 47,000 acres’ owners give up development rights, towns should see more revenue because the state’s farmland assessment is so “generous.’’

Her proposals, in part, seek to deal with the so-called “fake farmers,’’ removing them from the more lucrative farmland assessment program but still offering the conservation easement approach.

Witnesses from the N.J. Farm Bureau raised a concern about the great amount of farmland in the state that is leased, and about an owner who opts to cease leasing out land for farming in order to opt for this conservation easement,  thus reducing the overall amount of farmland in the state.

The N.J. League of Municipalities registered its opposition. For one thing, it is concerned about one of the measures passing but not the other, thus reducing property taxes overall, shifting the property tax burden from one sector to another, and ultimately hurting municipalities.

But Beck said that if both measures go forward then the so-called “fake farmers,’’ who can no longer take advantage of the one program, would be motivated to move into the other so that towns may actually see more revenue.

Farmland assessments were an issue in Beck’s first run for the senate when she faced Democrat Ellen Karcher who lived on property assessed as a farm.  Beck hammered at the issue, which ultimately hit home with voters who ushered the Republican challenger into the senate.