A resolution submitted by Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes that calls for a voter referendum in November to permit the reallocation of the County’s Open Space Trust Fund — placing a greater emphasis on stewardship, park development and historic preservation — was approved by the Board of Commissioners on July 15.

Village Green is a 7-acre County-owned open space property in Hamilton Township. Historically it was farmed, but fell fallow when the farm lease expired. The Mercer County Park Commission’s stewardship team recognized its potential to be transformed into an important meadow habitat for native bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. The project was funded by the County’s Open Space Trust Fund, which since 2018 has supported the seeding of 44.5 acres of native grass and wildflower meadows. This includes County-owned land in Hamilton, Lawrence and Hopewell, as well as 1.5 acres of municipal land in Ewing Township | Photo provided by Mercer County

The new Open Space, Recreation and Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund allocation, which was recommended by the County Planning Department and Park Commission, would increase the amount for stewardship of County-owned parks and open spaces from 10 percent to 20 percent, and increase the amount for park development and historic preservation from 20 percent to 30 percent, with 50 percent allocated to open space acquisition.

Hughes stressed that approval of the referendum would simply be a reallocation of the Trust Fund – not a tax increase. It would not change the levy of up to 3 cents per $100 of equalized valuation that Mercer County voters overwhelmingly approved in 2004 to fund the Trust Fund. The County open space tax rate, which is determined annually by the Board of Commissioners as part of the budgeting process, is currently 2.5 cents per $100 of equalized valuation.

“By shifting the authorized allocation of the Trust Fund, the County could continue its acquisition program and continue providing land acquisition grants to municipalities and non-profit land conservancies, while investing more toward providing access to our parks and expanding recreational offering,” said Hughes. “This, along with increased stewardship efforts, will ensure the ecological health of the lands entrusted to us, while providing expanded and appropriate recreational and nature-based activities to our residents”

Over the past three decades, Mercer County has utilized the assets of the Trust Fund to purchase and preserve thousands of acres of farmland and open space for future generations to use and enjoy, and has improved public access and recreational opportunities to County-preserved parkland.