Moribund State Planning Commission Keeps Smart Growth in Limbo

Who's protecting open spaces and farmland in the country's most intensively developed state?

Chris Sturm, senior policy director of New Jersey Future
Its new plan to control growth in New Jersey has been on hold on for 15 months. Its deputy director just left to take a position at the Department of Environmental Protection. Its commission rarely meets as scheduled, cancelling three of its only four meetings this year.

The State Planning Commission, never a very visible public agency, has virtually disappeared as a functioning government entity, according to some.

By many accounts, the commission’s efforts to steer growth away from open spaces and farmland have been largely unsuccessful, a familiar criticism. Perhaps it is even more so because of the Christie administration’s inaction, claim some critics.

As the nation’s most intensively developed state, New Jersey passed a law nearly three decades ago to set up a State Planning Act, a move aimed at directing future growth and aligning state resources to support growth in the right places.

It never happened; in part, because past administrations failed to require state agencies to direct aid to areas most suitable for development.

When Gov. Chris Christie took office, no fan of the original law, he pushed the commission to overhaul the act. It led to the commission to proposing a new plan, dubbed the strategic investment plan, to guide where public investments should be made.

After Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey in the fall of 2012, however, the plan was put on hold, meaning the former State Development and Redevelopment Plan remained in place. In effect, that led to state planning efforts to be placed in limbo, according to smart-growth advocates, especially so since the commission rarely meets.

Dan Kennedy, a well-regarded deputy director of the commission, recently left to become an assistant commissioner at the state Department of Environmental Protection. He had been instrumental in creating the new strategic investment plan yet to be adopted by the commission.

“Of course it’s a concern nothing happens with the plan,’’ said Ann Brady, executive director of PlanSmart, a smart-growth organization. “Clearly, there’s a lack of leadership for planning and a lack of willingness to take it on.’’

Others agreed.

“We ‘ve seen no action or interest in the plan,’’ said Chris Sturm, senior policy director of New Jersey Future. “New Jersey’s plan is languishing. It still needs to be updated.’’

Of concern to smart-growth advocates is the recent passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, which uses the State Plan to determine where to focus economic incentives to spur growth.

The Economic Opportunity Act was a tool designed to help implement some of the concepts in the plan, according to Brady. Without any clear guidelines, they question where the incentives will be directed.

Calls to Gerald Scharfenberger, director of the Office of Planning Advocacy were not returned.

The revisions of the original state plan set up new guidelines for steering growth in New Jersey into geographic sectors geared to certain industries where state investments would be targeted. It aims to direct investments and resources to bolster high-growth sectors, such as finance, healthcare, and the ports.

To some, the revisions to the plan too often focus on promoting economic growth, instead of preserving the few remaining spaces in New Jersey, which studies suggest will be the first state to build out without any remaining developable land.

“They don’t give any lip service when it comes to smart growth,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s a broad-based attack on any kind of planning by the administration.’’