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Agency Approves Strategic Growth Plan Without Specifying Where the Growth Will Be

Instead of a map, the revamped plan relies on criteria to identify where growth should be targeted and where discouraged.

The Christie administration's revamped strategic plan for targeting growth in New Jersey won speedy approval yesterday from the State Planning Commission, despite concerns of smart growth advocates that the draft plan lacked any details about where the growth would be directed.

In a meeting in the Statehouse Annex, the commission unanimously approved the plan with little debate and without hearing any comments from the public -- much to the annoyance of people who showed up to talk about the initiative.

The plan is a radical reworking of a State Plan and Redevelopment Plan put in place a decade ago that failed to be reflected in policies carried out by governmental agencies. It was unveiled last month by the administration after a process criticized by some for excluding their involvement. It now will be the subject of public hearings in which critics and advocates can weigh in on how the draft plan should be improved.

To some, the plan puts a bigger focus on economic growth rather than environmental preservation. The fear is that this will lead to projects that create jobs, with investment trumping protections that safeguard open space and drinking water supplies.

The plan calls for geographic cluster zones that would attract high-growth industries, such as financial services, but does not identify where such segments would be specifically located.

At the same time, the plan eliminates a map of New Jersey that directed where growth should be targeted and where it should be discouraged. Instead, it would establish criteria that determine where state resources, such wastewater treatment plants, would be allocated -- a shortfall that even those who praised the plan said needs to be rectified quickly.

"This really could take New Jersey to some place good,'' said Chris Sturm, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit smart growth organization. But she added that the commission needs to make it clear where growth will take place, a suggestion repeatedly mentioned by both proponents and skeptics.

Lucy Vandenberg, executive director of PlanSmart NJ, another smart growth group, agreed, arguing that the proposed criteria-based system needs to better define "where growth should occur and where it should not.''

Others said the plan lacks even more details. "The plan, itself, seems more like a vision than a plan,'' said Courtney Mercer of the NJ Chapter of the American Planning Association, who suggested that the plan needs more "meat.''

Despite the criticism, several of the smart growth organizations welcomed the plan, particularly the establishment of a high-level steering committee chaired by the lieutenant governor to resolve conflicts between state agencies that prevented the old plan from achieving its objectives. The committee is seen by some as a way to align various government agencies with the goals of the strategic plan, something that failed to happen under the old guidelines.

The committee also has its detractors. "When I look at this, it seems to be written to trump the rules of other state agencies,'' said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Bob Martin, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a member of the planning commission, said the plan represented a "paradigm'' shift in how the state targets its resources. He called the strategic plan a "road map'' guiding state investments and helping identify where it needs to preserve open space. His agency already has taken steps to align its policies with the goals of the strategic plan.

Martin also disputed suggestions the plan would lead to a weakening of environmental rules. "The clear intention is to focus on preserving natural resources,'' he said.

What makes that task so difficult is the enormous cost projected by a study prepared for the commission on how much New Jersey needs to invest in its infrastructure over the next two decades. A report prepared two years ago projected that the state needs to spend $178 billion between 2008-2028 to upgrade its transportation and environmental infrastructure systems, the bulk of the money going to roads, bridges, and tunnels.

The commission approved that assessment yesterday, too, a move that drew scorn from some of the groups that appeared to testify. Wilma Frey, a senior policy advisor for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, called it "intellectually dishonest'' to approve that assessment, which was based on the old 2001 state plan, not the draft strategic plan approved by the commission yesterday.

Bill Wolfe, a Hunterdon County resident and a representative of a group that represents public employees, agreed. "You're duping the public,'' he said. "You approved an assessment of a plan that doesn't exist anymore.''

Still, others questioned how the new strategic plan will prevent the overdevelopment that has hiked property taxes and gobbled up open space. "It does not get into how sprawl will be stopped,'' said Sandy Batty, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

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