Profile: Planning Expert Helps Shape, Guide State’s Development and Growth

Colleen O'Dea | November 26, 2014 | Profiles
New Jersey Future policy director stresses need to end neglect of infrastructure in cities, adopt revised statewide plan

Chris Sturm, senior policy director of New Jersey Future
Who she is: Chris Sturm

Age: 53

What she does: Sturm is the senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting responsible land-use policy.

What she used to do: Her first job had nothing to do land use or policy. Sturm, who grew up in Michigan, graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. She got a job in her field, moving to California to work for Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley. At first, she said, it was very exciting. But after three years working as a product manager, Sturm said, “I realized I didn’t care if they sold any more computers.”

How she found her calling: Sturm’s husband got a job in New Jersey, so she relocated across the country. Once here, she began working as a research assistant with the Middlesex Somerset Mercer Regional Council, which today is known as PlanSmart NJ, whose mission is similar to that of NJ Future.

“I loved it right away and I have loved it ever since,” Sturm said. She spent a year there, then got a master’s degree in public affairs and urban and regional planning from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She worked for the Capital City Redevelopment Corporation, where she was assistant director, and at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, before joining NJ Future in 2002.

What she focuses on: Sturm oversees NJ Future’s policy development and advocacy on a number of issues involving good planning and smart development at the regional and state levels.

She led the group’s successful effort to get the state Legislature to update the cluster development provisions of the land-use law to give municipalities more authority to include clustering and lot-size averaging in their zoning rules. The changes allow for smarter development while at the same time preserving open space.

The biggest issue she has worked on in her career: Sturm was involved in drafting the first state development plan adopted in 1992. The goal was to guide development to centers and other built-up areas and discourage construction in rural and environmentally sensitive areas.

State agencies were supposed to use the plan to determine where to invest state funds in infrastructure improvements and open-space preservation. That didn’t happen to the extent advocates hoped. Still, the plan was updated in 2001 and the dawn of the Christie administration seemed to hold promise.

“The leadership in the governor’s office said they wanted to use the state plan to help them focus the state’s resources to improve the economy,” Sturm said.

The State Planning Commission was ready to adopt a new plan in December 2012, but instead members returned from closed session to say they “couldn’t adopt a plan unless it reflected the lessons of Sandy.”

Now, Sturm said, the commission is “barely functional, meeting only occasionally.” And, despite changes in the state over the last 13 years, the plan adopted in 2001 is “still being used to direction billions in economic incentives.” Sturm said the state needs the new plan, and she is hopeful about its revival, but she is “not optimistic it will happen in this administration.”

But it’s not all bad news: New Jersey has changed significantly while Sturm has been at NJ Future, some of it for the better.

“We have seen a tremendous market shift away from sprawl development,” Sturm said, noting that an increased desire to live in more compact, walkable communities “really put the wind behind our sails.” In addition, cities are beginning to embrace “green” infrastructure projects — capturing rain water, for instance, for reuse.

On the other hand, she said, it’s clear that municipal infrastructure is breaking down as officials have balked at making needed investments. And Superstorm Sandy presented the state with resiliency challenges.

“It’s going to take really strong leadership at all levels to meet these challenges,” Sturm said.

Where she lives: The mother of three lives with her husband in Princeton — a very “walkable” town.

What you might not know about her: A member of the board of trustees at her church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, Sturm “loves to knit.” She picked it up again when knitting came back into fashion a number of years ago. Mostly, she makes scarves and gives them as gifts. She and her family enjoy backpacking vacations.