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Opinion: Marking Time Until the Revised State Plan Can Be Adopted

The blueprint for growth and preservation is integral not just to development but also to quality of life in New Jersey

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Lucy Vandenberg

As New Jersey residents watch a variety of important economic growth, Hurricane Sandy, and open-space protection bills wind their way through the Legislature this summer, it’s hard not to think how much further along we would be if New Jersey had adopted a new State Plan.

New Jersey’s revised State Plan, our state’s blueprint for growth and land preservation, was originally set to be adopted by the State Planning Commission last year. The new State Plan -- still in draft form -- provides a broad framework for how and where development should take place in New Jersey, as well as criteria for conservation. Unfortunately, the revised State Plan is in a deep freeze, at least until after November’s election.

Planners and smart-growth advocates are hopeful that once the election has passed, things will get moving again and the State Plan will finally be adopted. Let’s hope so. Given that the last plan is seriously outdated -- adopted in 2001 -- a new version is sorely needed.

Why is it important? A new State Plan can help us as we plan to rebuild and redesign our communities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. When considering what areas should be rebuilt -- and how -- or what neighborhoods might benefit from buyouts, we need more than federal FEMA maps to guide us. New Jersey residents would benefit from a more comprehensive and state-level analysis of how and where redevelopment should occur in Sandy-impacted areas.

The State Plan can also help us prioritize our open space investments – consider SCR-160, the pending bill to fund open-space and farmland preservation that passed the State Senate in late July. The State Plan can serve as a guide to land acquisitions through the State Green Acres program or the NJ Farmland Preservation Program as state officials consider how to allocate limited funds.

An up-to-date State Plan can also help us to determine where we should be providing economic incentives to businesses to build -- consider the pending Economic Opportunity Act of 2013. It has been difficult to link tax incentives to particular locations encouraged for growth when the State Plan, our guide to where and how growth should occur, hasn’t been updated in over a decade.

The State Plan can also help us on the regulatory side. Consider the pending revisions to the NJDEP Water Quality Management Rules, which, among other things, were intended to take their cue about water and sewer infrastructure investments from the new State Plan. That rule update is also on hold, leaving many development decisions in limbo.

There are some things we can do to prime the pump while we wait for the election slowdown to pass. One is to pay attention to the economic growth ideas contained in the draft State Plan -- such as the concept of regional innovation clusters, which are geographically concentrated, connected businesses in a particular sector. They are one way to think about how and where growth should take place in New Jersey: by looking at an existing map of where these businesses are already located, how they relate to existing infrastructure, and what we can do to support them.

New Jersey has eight industry sectors that have been demonstrated in a new study released by PlanSmart NJ to have clustering patterns. These include: advanced manufacturing; finance; healthcare; life sciences; technology; transportation, logistics, and distribution; aerospace and defense; and tourism. The pending Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 provides tax incentives for many of these types of businesses to locate in New Jersey, an important first step. But we should also be looking at what types of infrastructure investments, quality-of-life enhancements, and transportation investments we might consider making to support these sectors.

Just as we need consistent and predictable investment in economic development, we also need consistent and predictable investment on the other side of the equation -- our open spaces.

New Jersey residents already understand and appreciate the value of open-space preservation, farmland preservation, and historic preservation to our state’s economy, to our quality of life, and to our ability to recover from events such as Hurricanes Sandy and Irene. More must be done by our political leaders now to provide a consistent, predictable, long-term source of funding for these purposes, particularly since funding for these programs has now run dry.

We need funding in place to attract companies to our state as a first step. We also can benefit from a forward-looking economic development strategy such as regional innovation clusters to capitalize on New Jersey’s assets and existing infrastructure. And having open-space funding in place to ensure that our quality of life remains attractive is equally important.

Adoption of an updated State Plan that helps us to prioritize these investments and effectively implement strategies to simultaneously address economic development, disaster recovery, and quality-of-life improvements is the glue that binds these concepts together. Adoption of the State Plan will make for a stronger, safer, more vibrant and livable New Jersey.

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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