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Op-Ed: New State Strategic Plan Starts Off on the Right Foot

But there's still a journey to make before the plan achieves its intended goal.

The State of New Jersey Office for Planning Advocacy (OPA) recently unveiled Gov. Chris Christie's vision for a new State Strategic Job Growth Plan. The draft plan completely revamps the state plan that was adopted a decade ago. New Jersey's landscape has changed a lot since then: 243,000 housing units have been added; New Jersey's population has grown by 377,000; and over 30 percent of New Jersey's 5 million acres have become suburbanized. Meanwhile, our cities have continued to lose population.

The last state plan disappointed almost everyone -- planners, developers, municipalities, and environmentalists. It contained much in the way of aspirational language but had limited impact -- only 17 of New Jersey's 566 municipalities achieved consistency with the plan, known as "plan endorsement." Incentives were few and state agencies, for the most part, didn't change the way they did business to support state plan implementation.

The new plan has the potential to change all that. It sets forth four goals: targeted economic growth, effective planning for vibrant regions, preservation and enhancement of critical state resources, and tactical alignment of government. It proposes "guiding principles for state decision-making": predictability, spatial efficiency, leveraging assets, sustainability, and institutionalizing change.

The plan is paired with an executive order signed by Christie on October 19, creating a State Strategic Plan Steering Committee. The committee, to be headed by the lieutenant governor, is intended to align state agency investments, regulations, and policies with the new plan.

The plan hinges upon the formation of "priority industry clusters": geographic regions designed to support targeted growth industries. This is a concept that PlanSmart NJ, an advocate for state planning and sustainable economic growth, has long championed. To thrive, these industries need infrastructure investment; livable, mixed-use communities with housing opportunities in close commuting distance from work; and a synergistic relationship with higher education institutions.

This new state plan sets priorities and recognizes the essential relationship between economic vitality and quality of life here in New Jersey. To ensure effective and balanced implementation, however, some additional steps need to be taken. For the plan to truly succeed here in New Jersey, here are some measures that PlanSmart NJ believes should be implemented before its adoption next year:

  • Local planning and zoning is where the rubber hits the road in the world of land use planning. The draft State Strategic Plan proposes to leave New Jersey's locally driven zoning and planning process as is, instead using an incentive-based scorecard system to spur plan participation. Implementing the State Strategic Plan could prove to be a challenge, however, when state-identified projects of regional economic significance face local opposition. Without taking steps to modernize our local zoning and planning systems to reflect regional economies, there may be little either to prevent sprawl patterns from continuing or make mixed-use development at economically feasible densities possible.

  • New Jersey's counties and regional planning entities should play a broader role in implementing the State Strategic Plan. It would make sense to give them both more planning authority and greater capacity-building support so that they can effectively foster sustainable regional economic development and facilitate mixed-use compact communities in their regions. Some counties and regions are already well-positioned to provide this expertise. In others, the state will need to build that capacity to see regional planning efforts succeed there.

  • The Plan proposes a criteria-based system to identify where growth should occur and where conservation should take place. This criteria-based system is intended to replace the State Plan Policy Map. This set of criteria should be further developed so that there is a transparent and predictable system for identifying where growth should be fostered and where environmental protection should be sought.

  • The State Strategic Plan Steering Committee is a much-needed vehicle to spur interagency coordination, communication and dispute resolution. The steering committee should also play a broader role in ensuring that state agency policies, regulations and investments align before they are adopted. In this way, state department actions will be coordinated under the common framework of the State Strategic Plan, rather than working at cross-purposes.

  • The State Strategic Plan appropriately identifies institutional change as a guiding principle for state decision-making. The executive order creating the State Strategic Plan Steering Committee is a good start. Amendments to the State Planning Act, the County Planning Act, and the Municipal Land Use Law are also needed to make these changes stick.

Christie's new state plan is poised to transform our planning systems to provide state agency alignment and foster strong regional economies. With the adoption of the changes proposed above, we are confident that it can do even more to support economic growth, protect New Jersey's environment, and foster livable communities for years to come.

Lucy Vandenberg is the Executive Director of PlanSmart NJ. PlanSmartNJ is a statewide nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation. PlanSmart NJ aims to advance economic growth through a balanced land use approach that includes consideration of the economy, environment, resource efficiency, and equity. She can be reached at lvandenberg@plansmartnj.org

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