Angry Critics Call New Jersey’s Blueprint for Growth too Radical

Tom Johnson | September 11, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Regional planning to stimulate economic growth meets opposition at unruly public hearing

Angry Critics Call New Jersey's Blueprint for Growth too Radical
The Christie administration’s draft strategic investment plan is touted by officials as a blueprint for spurring economic development in New Jersey, a goal seemingly embraced by many.

But critics say it represents a much more radical plan, and a very unlikely GOP agenda at that. It’s a proposal they say redistributes wealth, usurps individual property rights, and reflects a decade-old United Nations resolution that aims to promote so-called sustainable environmental growth around the globe.

In the seventh public hearing on the draft plan in Toms River yesterday, more than 50 people showed up, mostly to denounce the proposal. Often they shouted down a Christie administration official who sought to answer questions, loudly applauded those who criticized the proposal, and frequently interrupted the official when he sought to address those concerns.

The hearing seemed to underscore the growing, and often unruly, opposition to regional planning emerging not only in New Jersey but nationwide.

That opposition is mirrored in the Republican platform adopted last month in Tampa. It rejected the U.N. resolution, dubbed Agenda 21, as “aggressively erosive of American sovereignty,’’ even though the resolution is non-binding.

Not that the plan is much welcomed by proponents of smart growth, who worry it emphasizes economic growth at the expense of preserving open space. But the loudest critics by far are those who oppose any expansion of government growth.

For many in the audience, the proposed strategic investment plan was part of Agenda 21. They had little patience with those who opposed that view.

“This is without doubt Agenda 21. We’re not stupid people,’’ said Connie Sherwood, “This is not going to happen. If you pass this, we will be in Trenton.’’

“This plan has nothing to do with the U.N.,’’ said Gerard Scharfenberger, director of the state Office of Planning Advocacy, later adding, “This plan isn’t coercive; it is completely voluntary.’’

That view did not sit well with most of the people who showed up at the hearing. In various comments, the plan was described as anti-American, socialist, and an attempt to add yet another layer of bureaucracy to solve problems with state government.

“We have too much government,’’ argued Pat Gilenbeski, who complained about Trenton’s efforts to impose new affordable housing requirements on Toms River, even though it lacks the infrastructure to support it.

Scharfenberger repeatedly sought to defend the plan, often to catcalls from the audience. He said the plan seeks to steer state resources and money into areas where investments are wisest, while still giving local governments the ultimate decision to where growth occurs.

The 41-page plan, still being revised by the administration, 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.

It aims to achieve those goals by trying to align various state departments with those targets. Too often, in the past, developers have been told by one agency one thing to find a completely opposite decision from another agency, according to Scharfenberger.

To some, the inability of departments to coordinate their actions suggested a need to shutter some state agencies. “I think what you are hearing is government intervention hasn’t worked,’’ according to one woman who spoke up at the end of the question and answer period.

Ian Gratton, a resident of Middletown, agreed. “The government is never going to be successful in allocating money and resources in the free market,’’ he said. In reading the plan, he said he saw just one word: control.

Several speakers told the officials to scrap the draft plan and begin all over again, a decision officials said would be up to the Christie administration.

But environmentalists argued that the administration is welcoming the attacks on the plan by opponents of Agenda 21.

“Agenda 21 is a smokescreen used by this administration to cover up a state strategic plan to attack the environment and planning,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Others were more defensive about the process.

“I’ve been involved in planning issues for 26 years,’’ said Chris Sturm, a senior policy analyst at New Jersey Future, and “I’ve never heard of Agenda 21.’’ She backed the planning process pushed by the state Office of Planning Advocacy. “I have three kids and nothing would make me happier if they decided to live in New Jersey.’’