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Administration Wants to Shelve Smart Growth Map

Tom Johnson | October 20, 2011

Radically revised state development plan would stress economic growth over environmental protection.

The Christie administration is proposing a radical overhaul of the State Plan, a blueprint state officials devoted years trying to achieve, mostly unsuccessfully, by steering growth to established urban and suburban areas and away from open space and farmlands.

The new strategic development plan emphasizes economic growth instead of environmental preservation by establishing geographic industry clusters where the state will direct investments and resources to bolster high-growth sectors such as finance, healthcare, and the ports.

Perhaps more importantly, the new plan eliminates the controversial State Plan Policy Map, which established different planning areas, setting aside regions for growth, limited growth, and conservation. For the most part, however, the map was often a bone of contention among local officials, conservationists, and developers -- in part, because various state agencies applied the plan inconsistently.

Adopted in 1985, the current plan never lived up to its lofty goals. According to both backers and critics, that was primarily because previous administrations failed to force agencies to direct resources and state aid, such as funding for sewer lines and roads, to areas designated for growth and away from non-growth areas.

The new plan, outlined in a 41-page report released late yesterday, for the first time will require state agencies to create functional plans to align state regulations, policies, and resources. The State Strategic Plan, the report said, represents a "balance of development and conservation."

While setting forth general goals and criteria to be used in guiding land-use decisions, the plan is still largely a work in progress. For instance, it mentions creating "regional innovation centers" for manufacturing, technology, and pharmaceuticals to drive economic growth, but it does not spell out where they would be located. It also fails to specify what criteria will be used to identify "priority growth investment areas."

With so many unknowns, the plan is likely to be met with harsh scrutiny by some proponents of smart growth policies.

"My biggest concern is they will use this to trump environmental protections to run sewer lines into environmentally sensitive areas," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who argued the plan likely will lead to more sprawl in New Jersey.

The move to eliminate non-growth areas, as designated in the current plan, worries Sandy Batty, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions. "If we don't see breaks in areas that need protections, such as water supply, then we are going to have concerns," she said.

While the plan talks about preserving critical environmental resources and agricultural land it does concede "well-planned 'greenfield' development will be necessary at times."

Other smart growth advocates, however, were supportive.

"Is this consistent with the State Planning Act? Yes, it is," said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, which has been frustrated with implementation of the law in the previous two administrations. "We see better chance of getting smart growth outcomes in this plan than in the current plan."

PlanSmartNJ welcomed the aim of aligning state policies, regulations and resources with the new plan. "If this plan does nothing else, it must end state government's practice of operating in a silo when it comes to land-use decisions," said Richard Goldman, its vice chairman.

To achieve that end, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday signed an executive order requiring government agencies to integrate the plan into their programs and rule changes, their annual capital spending plans, and interagency coordination.

"Moving forward, New Jersey will focus its policies and investments on vibrant regions by fostering targeted job growth, supporting effective regional planning, and preserving the state's critical resources," the plan said.

Whether that happens when the draft plan is finished remains to be seen, according to some skeptics. In recent months, the Christie administration has pulled back on some smart growth programs, such as directing money for energy conservation projects to areas only designated for growth. The draft plan also talks about locating job growth in areas near transportation hubs, but the administration previously eliminated funding for New Jersey's transit village program, which sought to direct transit improvements near those hubs.

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