Opinion: Welcome to New Jersey: The Suburban Sprawl State

Michael Catania | August 10, 2010 | Opinion
Report reveals that new development gobbled up 44 acres per day, or more than 16,000 acres per year, over a five-year period

Any hope that New Jersey is replacing suburban sprawl with smart growth took a hard knock recently, with the release of a report from Rutgers and Rowan Universities. Changing Landscapes of the Garden State reveals the rate of development between 2002 and 2007 was 5.5 percent, some five times faster than the state’s 1.1 percent population increase during the same period.

That new development gobbled up 44 acres per day, or more than 16,000 acres for each of those five years. For the first time ever, urbanized land leads all other categories of land use, and now accounts for some 30 percent of the Garden State. The statistics for 1986 to 2007 are even more alarming: Developed land increased by 25 percent in just over 20 years.

While the current economic downturn may well have slowed sprawl to a crawl, there’s little reason to expect things to be any different when the economy revives. The real message of the Rowan-Rutgers report is that our love affair with cars, which first drove us to create suburban sprawl, is matched only by our collective inability to put into place policies that will help us to manage growth so it doesn’t consume all of our forests, farmlands and wetlands. The numbers since 1986 show an alarming trend that, even allowing for a brief respite due to the recession, portends an inexorable exhaustion of all remaining land and a genuine foreclosing of most of our policy options. We must take what may be the last opportunity to get things right.

Moving Toward the Tipping Point

Ironically, even as we approach the tipping point, what we hear more and more from our elected officials is that now is the time to abandon the very policies that need to be strengthened. This disconnect is not only disheartening but also problematic. For example, it is hard to see how a regional growth management system in the Highlands, which supplies drinking water to millions, is less than absolutely essential. And yet our leaders are considering emasculating or even dismantling the Highlands Act and Highlands Council. Further, both the State Development and Redevelopment Plan and our commitment to affordable housing for all residents seem to be in jeopardy.

Now is not the time to retreat. Now is the time to retrench and retool. Perhaps the only positive aspect of the current recession is that it provides us with an opportunity to fine tune and supplement our public policies to deal with what clearly lies ahead.

What would this fine tuning look like? To begin with, we should stay the course on the Highlands, and send the signal that this regional growth management program — as well its predecessor in the Pinelands, and the State Plan — are all essential to the solution. We should stop diverting funds meant to address the impacts of climate change and promote clean energy, so we can begin to find ways to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, use energy far more wisely and develop broader use of renewable energy sources. Our elected officials can show some real leadership by renewing the Transportation Trust Fund. And they can maintain our highways and promote better public transit by biting the bullet and raising the gas tax, rather than just refinancing the existing debt. And while we are at it, the expeditious use of the Green Acres funding approved by the voters in 2009 could help preserve a lot of farmland and open space, and secure some real bargains for taxpayers, which will help preserve our food supply and our water.

There is much for government to do, even in a time of lean budgets. For example, we can explore ways to promote broader use of growth management tools like transferable development rights and clustering. We can seek to harness market-based forces as we try to limit the adverse impacts of climate change and a whole host of other environmental problems. And yes, we need to use this respite to review and fine tune our regulatory systems, through a genuine effort to improve what already exists and by involving a balanced diversity of interests. While that may well identify some rules that no longer serve any legitimate purpose, I strongly suspect that it will also help us realize that we will likely need to adopt some new rules before it is too late.