Environmental Agency Endorses State Economic Growth Plan

Tom Johnson | November 1, 2011 | Energy & Environment
DEP backing troubles some conservationists who say blueprint favors development over preservation

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is wasting little time endorsing the objectives of a draft blueprint proposed by the Christie administration for targeting economic growth in New Jersey.

In a document posted on the agency’s website outlining goals for the “next generation of environmental management,’’ the department several times cited the State Strategic Plan unveiled earlier this month as helping to achieve those objectives.

The agency’s quick acceptance of the plan is troubling to some environmentalists because the new strategic plan puts a higher premium on economic development than environmental preservation, one of DEP’s core missions.

But what worked in the past to achieve improvements in air and water quality and open space preservation may no longer be efffective today, according to DEP.

“Our responses in the past afforded us huge environmental gains,’’ the DEP paper said. “Using the same responses today, may not provide similar results.’’

That conclusion was questioned by Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “How do they know?’’ he asked. “To me, it’s a rationalization to get rid of rules at DEP that have worked in the past,’’ citing the state’s water quality management rules and the agency’s Landscape project, which aims to protect habitat for endangered species. Both programs came under fire in the 41-page State Strategic Plan.

To others, however, the quick move by the DEP to align its policies with the strategic plan was welcomed as a sign that the Governor intends his agencies to follow the plan, closely something that rarely, if ever, happened in the past.

“He’s got a pretty disciplined approach to his management of state agencies,’’ said Chris Sturm, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Future, a smart growth group. “I would expect state agencies to take it pretty seriously.’’

The DEP paper said one of its primary goals would be to establish a unified agency implementation strategy that successfully achieves the intentions of the strategic plan, which includes purchasing land, , protecting water quality, and providing high-quality parks.

In doing so, the agency said it would ensure financial incentives and programs are aligned with those objectives. It also would eliminate conflicts in existing regulations that thwart the goals of the strategic plan.

Those conflicts have been one of the strongest criticisms of the current State Plan and Redevelopment Plan, with developers saying they often get caught in conflicting regulation between various governmental agencies. That’s what stakeholders told the administration in meetings held to discuss the strategic plan, officials said.

“If you do nothing else, if you get rid of the conflicting regulations, you will have hit a home run,’’ said Gerald Scharfenberger, director of the Office of Planning Advocacy, at a meeting last week to brief people on the strategic plan.

To ensure that outcome, Gov. Chris Christie signed an executive order earlier this month ordering government agencies to integrate the plan into their programs, annual capital spending plans, and interagency coordination.

Tittel and other environmentalists believe that the executive order and strategic plan’s emphasis on economic development will lead to growth trumping some of the state’s tough environmental rules when it comes to balancing the two issues.

“What I see is really a smokescreen to justify weakening environmental protections,’’ Tittel said.

Scharfenberger disputed that suggestion. “Economic development is not going to trump all,’’ he said.

Besides aligning regulation, enforcement and preservation, other overarching goals of a new environmental management plan would include using a Barnegat Bay restoration strategy as a model for other waterways and enhancing protection in environmentally overburdened communities. It also aims to develop a sustainable program for funding parks and to promote faster deployment of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power.