Strategic Development Plan Puts Economic Growth on the Map

Some smart growth advocates worry that the new plan puts the economy well ahead of the environment

With the release by the Christie administration of its strategic development plan, some skeptics are questioning whether its goal of spurring economic growth will wind up supplanting some of the nation’s most stringent environmental rules.

The bent to economic development is clear throughout the 41-page draft plan unveiled on Wednesday, a reflection of a recurring theme advanced by the governor during his 22 months in office.

The plan envisions setting up geographic cluster zones to attract high-growth industries, such as manufacturing, technology, pharmaceuticals/life sciences, and other sectors. Among the documents attached to the plan are maps identifying where such segments would be located, such as firms dealing in the financial services sector.

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At one point, the plan says “the state will ensure that state agency functional plans, for example, transportation, energy, water supply, water quality and air quality are coordinated with economic development goals and objectives.”

That language has raised some red flags, even among smart growth advocates who have endorsed the approach outlined by the administration. They cite the priority its officials have put on making New Jersey more business friendly by reducing red tape and regulations perceived to be costly to economic development.

“Does the economy win every time?” asked Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, which has long supported the State Plan. “We don’t know the answer to that.”

A lot will depend on criteria the administration develops to determine where to locate “priority investment areas” and other unanswered issues raised in the plan, Kasabach said.

Others are more skeptical, citing sections in the plan that question the Department of Environmental Protection’s use of the old State Plan to enforce regulations dealing with water quality management and its Landscape Project, an effort that sought to identify and protect habitats for endangered species.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, described the plan, and an accompanying executive order geared to its implementation, as giving developers a free rein in the state. “This plan and executive order set up a process for fundamentally dismantling environmental protections when they are related to land use,” he said. The Landscape Project has been used by DEP to apply to permits in wetlands, stream encroachments, coastal developments, and flood hazard zones.

Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey, agreed, saying people may get the wrong impression about the plan because, at points, it stresses the need to preserve environmental sensitive areas.

“What is so disturbing about this is there’s so much good rhetoric about environmental preservation, you could easily be misled about the plan,” she said. “When you read the details, it’s clear that economic development will be the number one priority and other goals will be sacrificed for that objective far too often.”

But Kasabach argued there is nothing in the plan which says the administration will favor jobs and economic growth over other goals, such as preserving farmland and open space.

Lucy Vandenberg, executive director of PlanSmart NJ, another smart growth organization, agreed. “It’s a positive thing — positive for the environment and positive for economic growth,” she said.

Still, environmentalists also are troubled by an executive order issued by Christie on Wednesday which set up a special steering committee, chaired by the Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, that will provide direction to state agencies for implement the new plan.

Among other things, the executive order “will serve as an inter-agency venue for agencies to address departmental-level conflicts in policies or practices that impact implementation of strategies identified in a new State Plan.”

Critics dub the provision as another opportunity to waive environmental rules, similar to a rule proposal pending by the DEP that would allow waivers in cases where there are conflicts between various state agencies. That rule proposal has triggered widespread opposition from environmentalists, as well as from some Democratic lawmakers.

The executive order raises similar concerns.

“I don’t know if the Lleutenant governor can understand and balance all of the competing priorities that come into play,” said Jaborska.

That view was disputed by others, who hope the steering committee will resolve conflicts that have frustrated economic growth in the past. “A key goal is to avoid gridlock,” Vandenberg said. “I don’t see how you do it in the absence of this steering committee. It is something that hasn’t happened in the past,” she said.