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Administration Fails to Push Revised State Plan Through at Contentious Hearing

Tom Johnson | November 14, 2012

Opponents and advocates agree: more time needed to review NJ guidelines for economic growth, development.

The Christie administration’s state strategic plan ran into an unexpected snag yesterday at a hastily called hearing to adopt the document, amid much opposition.

Many who attended the meeting in the Statehouse talked about the need to rebuild the Jersey Shore, but more sensibly. Some suggested a coastal commission as perhaps the best way to help the region recover. But others complained there already is way too much regulatory oversight of residents and businesses.

Hardly anyone who showed up at the New Jersey State Planning Commission meeting, however, took issue with the decision to hold off moving forward with the plan. Unveiled last Friday on the eve of a three-day holiday weekend, it afforded both proponents and critics little opportunity to assess what it means for promoting economic growth and preserving open space and farmland.

There was plenty of disagreement about whether the plan would achieve those objectives, but the delay in adopting the final document will give all concerned another opportunity to weigh in on the proposal. It is uncertain when the plan will now be adopted.

The plan, a 42-page revision of a draft proposed by the Christie administration this past November, won praise from some smart-growth advocates for better balancing economic development with preserving open space and protecting the environment.

The plan has taken on a new urgency given the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, particularly along the Jersey Shore, where massive rebuilding is needed. How that effort should proceed -- a subject of much debate at the hearing -- is not likely to be settled anytime soon.

Gerard Scharfenberger, the executive director of the state Office of Planning Advocacy, argued that the goals of the plan could provide a framework for longtime coastal recovery, an assertion that quickly drew criticism from environmental advocates.

“This plan cannot be a framework for coastal recovery,’’ said Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). He criticized the revision as an economic development strategy that ignores the land-use mandates at the core of the prior state plan.

“It’s a wakeup call to deal with global warming,’’ Wolfe said, referring to the storm while suggesting the state needs to set up a coastal commission to oversee the rebuilding of the Jersey Shore.

Others were more supportive of the administration's strategy. Lucy Vandenberg, executive director of PlanSmart NJ, a smart growth organization, agreed that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy state planning assumes much bigger importance.

Her organization, however, backed efforts to promote economic growth, particularly by establishing regional innovative clusters with high growth potential, such as pharmaceuticals, finance, and healthcare. (Vandenberg is an occasional columnist for NJ Spotlight.)

Once it establishes geographic industry clusters, the plan hopes to align various state departments with those targets by directing state investments and resources to bolster those high-growth sectors. In the past, those efforts failed, according to the plan released yesterday.

“Throughout the process of developing this Plan: one message was clear -- New Jersey’s past framework for statewide land use planning did not achieve the desired results,’’ according to the new plan.

Whether the new plan, yet to be adopted, will achieve any better results remains to be seen.

Some were hopeful. “It’s a much improved balance between economic growth and environmental protection,’’ said Chris Sturm, a senior policy analyst at New Jersey Future, a smart growth organization.

Michael Pisauro, an attorney for the New Jersey Environmental Lobby, disputed that view. “I don’t believe this plan got any better from the original draft,’’ he said, particularly citing provisions dealing with the coastal regions. “This plan will put people back in harm’s way.’’

As in past hearings on the plan, the proposal came under intense criticism from many residents, who view it as an ill-conceived expansion of government that would infringe on personal property rights.

“Government is getting too big and centralized,’’ suggested one woman who spoke at the hearing. “This is social engineering -- you can’t get away from it,’’ she said.

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