The Christie administration is expected this week to unveil changes to its draft strategic investment plan, its blueprint for spurring economic growth in New Jersey and for preserving open space.
The revisions to the plan, released this past October as part of a radical overhaul of the decade-old State Plan and Redevelopment Plan, will be made public less than two weeks before the State Planning Commission is expected to adopt the document.
The initial draft has won praise from some smart growth organizations, but garnered criticism from conservationists who fear economic development will trump preservation of open space and environmental protection
Among other things, the plan envisions setting up geographic zones (clusters) to attract high-growth industries, such as manufacturing, technology, and financial services.
While disclosing few details about the revisions, Dan Kennedy, deputy director of the Office of Planning Advocacy, hinted that the changes will provide more details and transparency about a new steering committee, which will resolve disputes when conflicts arise over the plan's implementation among different government departments.
"Many of you will be happy to see the public's input into the steering committee process," Kennedy said.
The steering committee, created by an executive order shortly after Gov. Chris Christie took office, is headed by Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno. "The venue is appropriate for resolving those disputes," Kennedy said at a NJ Spotlight roundtable Friday on smart growth.
During the roundtable discussion at the Masonic Temple in Trenton, there were both optimism and skepticism expressed about the draft strategic plan. Kennedy described it as an effort by the state to focus investments and regulatory systems to support sustainable growth.
John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, noted that New Jersey has a long history of supporting regional planning, citing the creation of the Hackensack Meadowlands, the Pinelands, and the New Jersey Highlands Council.
"Each time we do it, we do it worse than we did before," said Weingart, who also served as chair of the Highlands council for five years.
Eileen Swan, the former executive director of the Highlands council, was skeptical about the new plan, in part, because too much uncertainty surrounds how it would protect water supplies. "Do we have water for that growth? Do we have the wastewater capability to handle that growth?" she asked.
"The state plan has to grapple with that issue. Until that is done, we should not move on it," Swan said.
Audience members echoed that view, questioning how and whether the plan could move forward when the state's efforts to map sewer service areas remains incomplete.
Perhaps more than the details of the new plan, smart growth advocates argued it is more important the administration hold its agencies to its principles.
"We have to be more serious about state planning," argued Peter Kasabach, executive director of NJ Future, a nonprofit statewide organizations that lobbies for better land-use practices. "The only way it gets implemented is through administrative will."
In part, that is one of the biggest criticisms of the old state plan, a document that previous administrations talked about a lot, but never backed it up with the targeted investments that directed resources to where the state purportedly wants growth to occur—urban areas with the water and transit infrastructure to accommodate growth.
"There has to be a realignment of resources," suggested Robert Antonicello, executive director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency.
Kasabach agreed. "The plan gives basic direction. It's how we target our resources," he said. "We're not demanding of our leaders where are we going to be in 30 years? Do we have the infrastructure to support it?" he asked.