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Explainer: State Plan Ensures Continued Growth, Protects Environment

Guiding development, marshalling resources in the most intensively developed state in the country

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In 1986, New Jersey had 1.93 million acres of developable land (i.e., land that is not yet developed or permanently preserved or environmentally constrained). In 2007, the total amount of developable land was just 990,000 acres -- a loss of almost 50 percent. This means that guiding where and how we continue to grow is critical to the state’s economic prosperity, environmental health, and social equity. Simply put, that is the purpose of the State Plan.

State Planning in a Home-Rule State

New Jersey is the most intensively developed state in the country. In 1986, recognizing the critical role the state must play in directing future growth and aligning resources accordingly, New Jersey passed the State Planning Act -- a groundbreaking effort to coordinate land-use planning across state agencies and different levels of government.

Three Key Concerns

The act had three primary provisions. First, to oversee the implementation of the provisions of the State Planning Act, the legislation established an Office of State Planning, now known as the Office for Planning Advocacy and housed in the Department of State.

Second, to execute the provisions of the State Planning Act, the legislation created the State Planning Commission, an appointed board consisting of 17 members representing state government, local government, and the public. The four local-government and six public members are appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature for three-year terms. The director of the state Office for Planning Advocacy serves as executive director and secretary of the commission. Currently, three of the public seats and two local-government seats are empty and awaiting nominations.

Third, the State Planning Act required the commission to develop a State Development and Redevelopment Plan (the “State Plan”), a document intended to signal where growth should be encouraged and where open space should be protected. Most development decisions are made locally, so the State Plan is intended as a guiding document for land-use planning and regulation at all levels of government. It also addresses how state investments in growth and preservation -- economic development subsidies for commercial development, road and transit investments, open-space funding, etc. -- should be directed. The State Planning Act requires the State Plan to be updated every three years, based on a process of review with state agencies and county and municipal governments.

What’s in the State Plan

The first State Plan was adopted by the State Planning Commission in 1992. It identified five different types of “planning areas” where different levels of development or land preservation would be encouraged: Planning Area 1, for example, included the state’s most urban areas, and Planning Area 5 denoted areas that were environmentally sensitive and should be off-limits for development. In addition, “centers” were delineated as smaller areas where appropriate levels of compact development were to be encouraged. The State Plan was updated again in 2001, and has not been updated since. (An update process that began in 2004 was delayed, primarily due to mapping controversies, and eventually abandoned.)

The Strategic State Plan

In early 2011 the Christie administration began a process that culminated in October 2011 in the release of a proposed new State Plan update, called the State Strategic Plan. Rather than include a prescriptive map of what types of development would be encouraged in different areas, the draft State Strategic Plan relied on a set of “Garden State Values” that articulated a smart-growth philosophy of development and preservation. It promulgated a set of criteria to determine areas for different types of growth and preservation, which could guide where various kinds of public investments would be made. One of the primary objectives of the State Strategic Plan was to provide a template against which state agencies could coordinate development-related decision-making among themselves and with counties and municipalities.

Where We Are Now

After a series of public hearings during the course of 2012, the State Planning Commission was prepared to vote on adoption of the plan when superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey. At its December 2012 meeting, in the aftermath of the storm, the commission postponed a vote on adoption of the plan, acknowledging the need to incorporate lessons learned from the storm. It remains in draft form almost a year later.

Twenty-five years’ experience with state planning has produced mixed results. The State Plan vision for strong communities and preserved open lands is widely shared and has helped shape development patterns. However, as a voluntary guide with only intermittent support for implementation, the plan has not been fully realized by either state agencies or municipalities.

Nonetheless, the reasons the State Planning Act was adopted initially have not gone away, and perhaps have even been exacerbated by new challenges -- shrinking budgets putting additional strain on demands for public investment; the effects of climate change and the state’s need for greater resilience; our high unemployment rate and other economic-development challenges. The 2001 State Development and Redevelopment Plan is still the document that is looked to for guidance in addressing these challenges.

Chris Sturm directs New Jersey Future’s policy development and advocacy across a host of issues, including state and regional planning, sustainable infrastructure, and incentives for compact, equitable development.

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