Conflicting Views Over State’s Strategic Growth Plan

Tom Johnson | March 2, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Doubts linger over targets for economic growth vs. environmental preservation

Hearing sharply divergent views, the state last night concluded a series of six public hearings on its draft strategic investment plan, a blueprint for targeting where growth should occur in the future in New Jersey and where development should be discouraged.

The plan, unveiled last October by the Christie administration, overhauls and replaces a State Plan and Redevelopment Plan put in place a decade ago, which even its advocates acknowledge failed to achieve its objectives.

The 41-page plan emphasizes economic growth instead of environmental preservation by establishing geographic industry clusters where the state will direct investments and resources to bolster high-growth sectors, such as finance, healthcare, and the ports.

If so, it would reverse a shortcoming of the previous state plan, which most observers said never lived up to its lofty goals because previous administrations failed to force agencies to align state regulations, and more importantly, state aid, to areas designated for growth and away from lands that were designated for preservation.

Much of the comments focused on concerns that the state plan will intrude on local government’s tradition of home rule, forcing communities to accept developments and preservation of lands they had not sought or approved. In addition, others worried the plan would strip property-owners of the right to develop their land as they wish.

“The best government is the government that governs the least,’’ said George Gallenthin, an attorney, to a smattering of applause.

Dan Kennedy, deputy director of the Office for Planning Advocacy, tried to allay those concerns by arguing the new plan is not a ‘’land use plan, as it has been in the past.” It is not a substitute for local and regional planning, he added.

While about 60 people attended the meeting, most either skeptical of the plan or outright opposed to it, there were some who backed the effort.

Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, said the plan has great potential to enhance economic opportunities. “The state chamber views the state strategic plan’s emphasis on economic prosperity, resource efficiency and realignment of government not only as strengths of the document, but also as necessities for catalyzing the New Jersey comeback,’’ he said.

Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a smart growth organization, also supported the plan, but urged the staff to do more work in identifying criteria that will be used to target economic growth and preservation.

What worries some environmentalists about the draft plan is the fear that economic growth will trump preservation of open space, a concern voiced at the last hearing held at the Rutgers Eco-Complex in Bordentown.

“It is nothing more than a plan to promote more sprawl in New Jersey under the guise of strategic plan,’’ said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, in his written testimony. “The only thing strategic about this plan how it will turn the state over to developer at the expense of our cities and environment.’’

Louise Wilson, a Skillman resident, said she fears the new plan will end up resulting in a case-by-case decision basis. She also argued environmental protections should be given the same weight as economic growth objectives.

Mike Pisauro, a lawyer for the New Jersey Environmental Lobby, endorsed that view. He called the plan troubling, saying it ‘’only pays lip service to environmental protections’’ while repeatedly stressing economic growth.

The plan also includes the establishment of a high-level steering committee chaired by the lieutenant governor to resolve conflicts between state agencies, disputes which prevented the old plan from achieving its objectives, according to some smart growth advocates.