Smart Growth Policies Face Overhaul

Changes in state incentives for energy efficiency could push new buildings into underdeveloped areas and open spaces

planned development
The state is thinking about revamping its policies dealing with what projects receive financial incentives to reduce energy use in buildings, a change smart growth advocates fear will lead to further sprawl and loss of open space.

For nearly a decade, various policies have sought to promote construction in so-called Smart Growth zones, generally more urban and developed areas where sewer systems, schools and mass transit are already in place. Further, state agencies, including the New Jersey Office of Clean Energy, were encouraged to funnel aid away from projects in rural and low-growth areas without established infrastructure.

That policy could change, at least, in terms of what projects would receive incentives from the office to make new construction as energy efficient as possible. The office is poised to recommend to the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) that it eliminate policies that limit most incentives to new construction in Smart Growth areas.

The move triggered criticism from smart growth advocates. “We don’t think the government should subsidize people to live in areas where there are negative consequences,” said Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit group concerned about land use policies.

New Jersey has a long history of encouraging growth in areas where the infrastructure already is in place, Sturm said. “This is good for the economy and good for the environment,” she said.

Others also argued against the change in policy.

“What this rule change will do is promote green buildings in green areas, undermining smart growth policies and open space preservation,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

In reviewing the policy, however, the Office of Clean Energy said it is concerned it could result in less energy efficient buildings being built in those areas, limiting its ability meet the state’s energy savings goals outlined in the draft energy master plan (EMP) and resulting in lost opportunities to reduce energy use.

The draft energy plan, released by the Christie administration this past June, suggested the state revise its target of reducing energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020, although it did not detail what the new goal should be.

The administration has generally been critical of many of the state’s major planning initiatives, including the Office of Smart Growth. In its first year, the Office of Smart Growth, the agency tasked with coordinating growth among state agencies, was moved from the Division of Community Affairs to the Secretary of State’s office, chaired by the lieutenant governor. “They’re not doing their job,” Guadagno told the Building One New Jersey conference at Princeton University in July 2010.

The administration also is contemplating changes to the State Plan, adopted in 1985, as a way of coordinating land use, housing, economic development and natural resource protections — among other issues.

The administration has initiated a State Strategic Planning Process, a cabinet-level effort that will result in a set of recommendations that will transform the statewide framework for land use planning into one that prioritizes and supports sustainable economic growth, according to a statement on the Secretary of State’s website.

In addition, Gov. Chris Christie has appointed new members to the Highland Council, which has triggered opposition from conservation organizations who fear they will tilt the agency from one that aims to protect the region to one that allows for more economic growth.