We’re Losing Less Land to Development in NJ, and Slowing Loss of Natural Areas

Jon Hurdle | February 3, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Conservationists welcome new evidence from DEP data of a shift in New Jersey toward urban living
Credit: Paul Brennan from Pixabay
There’s compelling new evidence that urban land development, though still increasing, slowed sharply between 2012 and 2015.

New Jersey is using a lot less land to build towns and cities than it did before the 2007-2009 Great Recession and it’s losing wetlands, farmlands and forests at a significantly slower rate, according to the latest data on the trend from state and municipal sources.

A trove of land-use data from the Department of Environmental Protection, issued last September, offers compelling new evidence that urban land development, though still increasing, slowed sharply between 2012 and 2015 even though the economy and the housing market had by then recovered from the recession.

Since 2015, more recent municipal data on Certificates of Occupancy appears to confirm the trend. The numbers show that the biggest growth in residential units is taking place in counties that are already “built out” — meaning most of their land is either developed or preserved — indicating that the growth is being driven by redevelopment of land that has already been built on.

The two sets of data provide the latest indication that the United States’ most densely populated state is shifting its land use away from the low-density development that characterized new suburbs in prior decades and toward higher-density redevelopment of urban areas, easing pressure on undeveloped land.

‘A monumental shift’

“This is a monumental shift in the development pattern in a strikingly short period,” said Dr. John Hasse, a Rowan University professor of geography who analyzed the DEP data and used it to update NJ MAP, an interactive online tool that provides a wealth of land-use data in vivid graphical form for nonspecialists.

“It’s possible we could go back to more sprawl but right now this drop below the recession rate is an indication that something different happened beside just the economy dropping and that’s really interesting, and really hopeful,” he said in an interview. “It’s taken the pressure off the environment, as high as it was before.”

Hasse’s analysis, presented to New Jersey planners at a conference in late January, shows that use of land for urban development averaged 12,426 acres per year between 1985 and 2015 but decelerated sharply to an average of 2,601 acres per year in the four years from 2012 to 2015.

The annual loss of farmland dropped to an average of only 521 acres per year in 2012-2015 from 6,926 acres per year from 1986 to 2015. Loss of wetlands dropped to an average of 573 acres from 1,971 in the prior period while forest loss dropped by about half, to 2,373 acres per year.

Hasse attributed the shift in part to declining demand from young people for the traditional suburban living environments favored by their parents. Many people in their 20s and 30s want to live in dense, walkable communities rather than in car-dependent subdivisions, and the trend has resulted in fewer suburban homes being built, he said.

“Twenty-somethings don’t want to be, and can’t afford to be, in a house in the suburbs. They are all flocking back to Philadelphia, Jersey City, New Brunswick,” he said.

Smaller towns are benefiting

Even smaller towns are benefiting from the increased demand for urban living, Hasse said. He cited Glassboro, formerly a depressed South Jersey town that is now benefiting from an influx of Rowan students and a redeveloped town center where apartments, restaurants and offices are within walking distance of each other.

Statewide, higher demand for urban living is reflected in the Certificate of Occupancy data for 2016-2018 showing the highest growth rates in already built-out areas like Hudson, Bergen and Essex counties where new housing units are the result of redevelopment rather than new development, advocates say.

The occupancy data for rural areas like Cumberland, Salem and Warren counties also shows new development dropped sharply over the last two decades. But Ocean, Morris, Monmouth and Middlesex counties bucked the trend with recent increases, showing that sprawl persists in some places despite an overall decline, Hasse said.

The shift has also been driven by New Jersey’s conservation movement, led by state initiatives such as the Garden State Preservation Trust, and private nonprofits like the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which together have shielded many lands from development, Hasse said.

For example, preservationists used the 2008-2009 recession as an opportunity to persuade farmers who were unable to sell their land to developers to agree instead to conservation easements — agreements between landowners and government agencies or private conservation groups that typically prevent future real estate development, thus permanently preserving the land as farmland.

Other professionals see Hasse’s analysis as confirming a trend that they have been observing over the last decade or so, even if it’s not widely recognized by the public.

“Since about 2008, the growth has mainly been going into places that were already built up, so redevelopment is now where development is at in New Jersey,” said Tim Evans, director of research for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates for “smart growth” by developing in or near existing communities.

Where young people are flocking

Evans said the new data is consistent with his own research in 2017 that found 22-34-year-olds were flocking to areas that were already densely developed; had a mixed-use downtown, and a connected network of streets.

“You read a lot in the popular media about young people wanting to live in towns where they can walk to stuff, and the demand for ‘live-work-play’ environments,” he said. “I’m always skeptical about media narratives until I can see the data but this is one where the data do back it up.”

Development slowed sharply from 2007 to 2015 compared with the previous decade, Evans showed in a recent presentation to the 2020 New Jersey Planning Conference. The slowdown brought the development rate close to that of population growth after greatly exceeding it since the mid-1980s.

Calling redevelopment “the new normal,” Evans said almost two-thirds of residential building took place in “built-out” cities from 2008-2018, about twice the rate seen from 2000-2007.

Eric Olsen, director of the Land and Rivers Program at the New Jersey Nature Conservancy, said Hasse’s analysis reinforces what he’s been seeing “on the ground” since about 2012. “At this point in history, people are moving to compact, more densely developed places in New Jersey,” he said.

Still, it’s not certain the trend will continue, and so conservationists must continue to protect natural areas, said Olsen, whose group has worked with Rowan, NJCF and other conservation groups to create the New Jersey Conservation Blueprint, a part of NJ MAP that helps landowners make land-use decisions. He cited the Sourland Mountain region and the Barnegat Bay watershed as two areas that are close to build-out and need continued conservation action.

The value of NJ MAP

Among the parties that can benefit from using NJ MAP to inform land-use decisions are local planning boards that may not have the money or expertise to understand overall land-use patterns, Hasse said.

He cited White Township, a mostly rural community in Warren County that is deciding whether to allow construction of a warehouse that would cover some 3 million square feet of current farmland. The mapping project showed that the township has zoned more land for industrial use than other communities in its watershed, and that insight might influence the warehouse decision by its planning board, Hasse said.

“We’ve gone through decades of development being the answer to things,” he said. “It’s only in the last few decades, we think: ‘That’s going to bring a lot of problems; you might want to consider other approaches to the future of your town.’”

Credit: John E. Hasse
The shift is attributed in part to declining demand from young people for the traditional suburban living environments favored by their parents.