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Essay: Innovative Land Use Requires Work, Patience and Sacrifice

Are we in danger of surrendering New Jersey's long-term vision for short-sighted goals?

A small, densely populated state with an old industrial infrastructure and limited natural resources: that is New Jersey. How has such a state remained a successful economic engine and retained its nickname as the "Garden State"?

Answers to that question are many and varied. One can look at all the usual factors, proximity to markets, a variety of industrial and service-sector jobs and a skilled and well-educated workforce. People like to live and work in New Jersey. More high-income earners move into New Jersey than move out in any given time span, a testament to our state's quality of life.

Looking beyond the obvious, consider how New Jersey citizens have reached for the sky, while eschewing short-term fixes and pursuing visionary goals in ways that require work, patience and sacrifice to ensure a good and profitable future.

Protecting Resources

New Jersey voters don’t stop at building parks and buying open space. They support innovative land-use planning and regulations that protect resources; they support programs that save farmland and farmers to feed future generations; and they understand that the state’s future depends on the availability of clean air and clean water. They understand that maintaining these resources requires stringent regulation, not short-term gratification. The people of New Jersey recognize that the loss of a single species of flora or fauna is the first step to a disappearing human existence.

The key to New Jersey's success is the willingness of its people to be steadfast in protecting the local control of governmental functions, while utilizing regional and statewide planning as a framework. Just as county governments were created to provide those services that bridge the gaps between towns, state government must provide services that bridge the economic and infrastructure gaps between counties. This state has led all states in the union in applying regional solutions to the broader issues of resource protection.

New Jersey's various landscapes abound with examples of the success of regional planning. In the Meadowlands, regional planning has transformed what was once a dump into a productive development, bejeweled with restored habitat and resources serving all the residents and businesses of northeastern parts of the state. Shared property taxes --unique to New Jersey as a local control state -- have played a major role in the Meadowlands Commission’s achievement of its goals.

A state and federal partnership begun 30 years ago to manage growth in the vast coastal plain of New Jersey created the federal Pinelands National Reserve, spanning portions of seven counties and over a million acres of farms, forests and wetlands. The New Jersey Pinelands Protection Act was signed into law in 1979. The commission created by that law was empowered to develop, keep current and implement a Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) for land use. The plan employs a nationally recognized transfer of development rights program. Subjected to intensive monitoring, the CMP continues to protect agriculture, preserve the underlying reserves of groundwater and defend a unique ecosystem that was recognized by the United Nations as this country's first worldwide biosphere reserve.

Statewide Coordination

In 1985 the legislature recognized the need for statewide coordination of government agencies and the concomitant requirement to develop goals that should apply statewide. The State Planning Act was signed into law in 1986. It set forth goals that would support the economy, protect the natural resource base and attend to the social needs of our residents. The law called for policies at every level of government and a plan for where and how each of the policies shall be implemented. A commission made up of public agency designees, balanced by public members, forged the first State Development and Redevelopment Plan titled “Communities of Place” in 1992, following an extensive and unique cross-acceptance process with counties and municipalities.

As called for in the State Planning Act, an updated plan was cross-accepted and adopted in 2001. Unfortunately, the Office of State Planning has been moved to the Department of State, where the most recent revision continues to lie fallow and the commission lacks a quorum -- particularly of public members.

The State Plan was the first to officially note the need for special protection of another important resource area known as the New Jersey Highlands, which became our state’s fourth and newest regional initiative. In 2004 the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act was adopted. The Highlands Regional Master Plan is now in place to manage growth so as to protect the water supplies of the industrial northeastern region, the agricultural areas in the northwestern mountains, and a unique forested ecosystem.

Natural infrastructure -- rivers, streams, forests, grassland habitats and wetlands -- doesn't recognize political boundaries, but the wellbeing of people throughout the state depend on them. Regional planning provides a framework for future development, ensuring that the built infrastructure supports efficient movement of people and products and the safe disposal of wastes, while ensuring the protection of precious natural resources.

A State with a Future

People and businesses come to New Jersey because it is a state with a future. That future depends on far-sighted thinking, not short-term greed. We need to continue to lead the nation in the protection of water supplies, forest cover and our varied and important ecosystems. Our regional planning has demonstrated that land values increase, more construction takes place, agriculture thrives and property taxes are lower when appropriate land-use controls are in place. Towns are able to maintain their individuality while planning for a prosperous shared future. Developers applaud the predictability of regional land regulations.

New Jersey is currently at a crossroads. Under current poor fiscal conditions the emphasis could easily slip to the "now," assuming the future "will take care of itself." The one lesson New Jersey is apt to forget in these perilous times is that a successful recovery requires planning for the future. If we are to sustain our leadership role as we have throughout our history, we must ensure that our people and our resources are there when we need them. New Jersey will never recover without clean air; abundant, cheap clean water; good living conditions and an educated work force.

The governor is developing a strategic plan for the road forward. This strategy should look to the success of the regional plans and use the State Planning Act at its core. The administration should be wary of regulatory changes that might sustain short-term greed but not support the people's vision of the future. Predictability and a firm view of a productive future are critical and are what New Jerseyans will support.

Destroy, or allow others to destroy, land and water resources at your peril. They cannot be replaced, and build-out--even in a perfect world--looms ahead for this small state.

Candace McKee Ashmun has served as a member of the Pinelands Commission since its creation in 1979. She also served on the State Planning Commission and as executive director and three‑term president of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions. Ashmun is a trustee of the Coalition for Affordable Housing and the Environment and vice president of the board of the Fund for New Jersey.

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