FLEMINGTON, NJ – Emotions ran high when the freeholders first proposed changes to the rules that govern its open space trust fund plan, but Freeholder Matt Holt said, “the open space model is successful,” and even its critics are grateful for the changes.

The plan dictates how the county prioritizes proposals and spending using money it collects under its open space tax. The tax is 3 cents per $100 of a property’s assessed value.

Julia Allen, a Readington resident and former mayor, praised the freeholders at their regular meeting Tuesday as well as county staff for being “extraordinarily patient” in listening and responding to the plan’s critics.

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But, Allen said, “the attention was commensurate with the importance of the task.

“It was hard, day-to-day, month-to-month work … The cumulative effect over decades is enormous,” she said. “We’ve made very good decisions. The effect has been that we’re a better county for it.”

Jacqueline Middleton, who is the land acquisition director for Hunterdon Land Trust, told freeholders she is also grateful.

Under the plan that was approved Tuesday, freeholders clarified language regarding land stewardship to mean “repairing, restoring or improving lands acquired or developed for recreation and conservation purposes.” It also added language that dictates how money is allocated, which wasn’t included in the initial plan draft.

Under the approved plan, the lion’s share – 30 percent, is dedicated to farmland preservation. The Cooperative Open Space Grant Program is to receive 25 percent, and 15 percent goes to the Non-profit Open Space Grant Program. County open space – both purchases and stewardship – is to receive 15 percent. The remainder is divided between the Municipal Grant Program, Historic Preservation Grant Program and county historic preservation.

The plan revised the goals of Hunterdon Land Trust, which receives some of its revenues form the county. The revision identifies HLT’s focus as “to preserve the integrity of the rural landscape in Hunterdon ...by protecting and enhancing natural resources” and that its preservation efforts should be throughout the county.

In an interview, Freeholder Matt Holt noted that the county has collected $103.5 million in open space taxes since the program began in 2000. And although Hunterdon may look like it’s awash in open space, that’s not reflected in the actual  numbers. Holt said that the state suggests counties preserve 7 percent of its land mass for open space, yet Hunterdon is only about half-way to that goal, he said.

What accounts for the apparent incongruity? It’s all in the definitions, Holt explained.

For example, the state doesn’t consider preserved farmland as open space. Yet Hunterdon has about 340 farms that have been preserved – totaling more than 25,000 acres.

County open space tax revenue this year is projected to about $6.3 million. While that may seem like a lot of money, Holt said most of it goes where voters intended when they approved the 1999 referendum authorizing the tax. Less than 1 percent goes to legal fees, according to Holt, and about 2 percent goes towards administrative costs. Maintenance – such as for keeping trails open and taking care of buildings – represents about 6 percent of the open space revenue.

And, Holt notes, Hunterdon County has zero debt; today’s preserved open space wasn’t acquired by encumbering future generations.