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Opinion: New Jersey’s State Plan Offers Prosperity, Not Government Conspiracy

The antics of the Tea Party aside, the draft state plan envisions a New Jersey that can accommodate growth, change, and protection.

Earlier this month, the State Planning Commission concluded a series of six public hearings, which were by any measure, the most eventful of any in recent memory. The subject was the draft State Strategic Plan, which is expected to be voted on next month by the commission. While this may seem a dry topic to some, this time it was anything but, with Tea Party antics dominating the scene.

The most recent draft of the plan put forth by the Christie administration is intended to replace the current State Plan, which was adopted in 2001. It's meant to serve as a statewide guide for both growth and preservation, and contains four broad goals: 1) targeted economic growth; 2) effective planning for vibrant regions; 3) preservation and enhancement of critical state resources; and 4) tactical alignment of government.

These goals are of critical relevance and New Jersey residents would be wise to pay attention. But not for the reasons the Tea Party claims. The State Plan is not a global plot or a government takeover. It is not a conspiracy to confiscate our cars or force us all to live in “pods” and “hubs,” as many Tea Party members have proclaimed. Rather, the State Plan can help New Jersey attract and retain talent, create new jobs, reduce the amount of time we spend in traffic, make the most efficient use of our resources, preserve our open spaces, and revitalize our cities and centers.

These issues are important, and New Jersey residents of all backgrounds have a stake in the outcome. But voices from a broad cross-section of the public were missing from the recent State Planning hearings, and that is unfortunate.

New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation, both in terms of ethnicities and religions. We have the talent and opportunity generated by economic and racial diversity. And our diversity is growing. In just a decade, those groups currently categorized as racial minorities will account for a majority of the Garden State's population.

We are the second wealthiest state in the nation, and we are home to more scientists and engineers per capita than anywhere else in the world. Our diversity, talent, and educated workforce are our strengths.

We are also the most dense state in the nation. Our overall population is projected to increase by 3.9 percent, from 8,666,400 in 2008 to 8,999,800 in 2018, with more residents moving to South Jersey and to the shore areas. A recent study completed by Rowan University has revealed challenges to our future quality of life, however, with New Jersey continuing to develop land out of proportion to its population growth. In other words, we have continued to sprawl.

These past and future trends reveal the need for a State Plan that can help guide where we want growth and where we want to preserve open space. But it needs to do more than that. It also needs to provide guidance about how we grow, and provide real financial incentives and regulatory flexibility to foster the types of mixed-use, walkable communities that demographers, planners, and economic experts say will be the wave of the future.

Recent studies show that demographic trends and preferences are shifting, creating changes in market demand. According to a study performed by the Urban Land Institute, these shifts reflect an increased demand for “pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use communities in both urban and suburban settings.” Demographic trends show decreasing household size, growth in two-person households, a preference among older baby boomers for condominiums in “mixed-age and mixed-use communities," and demand by Generation Y for rental apartments in walkable urban settings.

New Jersey should position itself to seize upon these market opportunities. The State Plan represents a unique opportunity to achieve sustained economic growth, center-based development, multimodal transportation options, and open space protection. A broad cross-section of the public -- people from different parts of New Jersey, people who grew up in New Jersey, and new arrivals, people representing all of New Jersey’s ethnic groups, religions, and family types, the young and old -- have a stake in the outcome. They are New Jersey’s present and future talent pool. Our challenge as a state is to engage this broad cross-section of the public in the conversation to shape a more sustainable and prosperous future for us all.

Lucy Vandenberg is the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, a statewide nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation. She can be reached at lvandenberg@plansmartnj.org

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