New Study Shows Promise And Pitfalls Of ‘Smart Growth’ Planning

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Few successful businesses or individuals got that way without a plan.  In fact, most of us have budgets, investment plans, travel plans, and personal life plans, to name a few.  It‘s logical to assume that our state would have a plan to guide public infrastructure investments like roads, water and sewer services, and how we use our lands and resources.  And it does!

In fact, New Jersey has had a myriad of plans dating back to the 1930s, all with good intentions, but few with results.   So in 1987, New Jersey adopted the State Planning Act to create a more comprehensive plan with teeth (or at least gums!) to enable it to have some impact on the ground and on our budgets.

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The “State Development and Redevelopment Plan” – adopted in 1992, and now being rewritten for the third time – is commonly referred to as New Jersey’s “smart growth” plan. It has lots of good, comprehensive policies that make sense, but it has only been implemented through the courts.

Fiscal impact studies all indicate that New Jersey could save billions of dollars, and stem traffic congestion and sprawl, if the plan were more fully implemented.

In a recent nationwide study of smart growth planning, progress on New Jersey’s plan received lukewarm marks.

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s new Smart Growth Policies: An Evaluation of Programs and Outcomes is the first in-depth analysis of smart growth programs in the United States.

The report evaluates four states with statewide smart growth programs – New Jersey, Florida, Maryland and Oregon – for performance in five major policy goals:  promoting compact development, protecting undeveloped land, providing a variety of transportation options, maintaining affordable housing, and achieving positive fiscal impacts.  Results were compared with Colorado, Indiana, Texas and Virginia – four states that lack statewide smart growth initiatives.

None of the states did well in all five areas, though most showed success in a few.  Maryland, for example, succeeded in protecting natural resources through land preservation programs.  (New Jersey, by the way, is accomplishing this through its Garden State Preservation Trust.) Urban growth boundaries in Oregon helped reduce development on farmland and encouraged commuters to use public transit, walk, or bike to work.

The study also found that some states without smart growth plans were able to achieve smart growth goals.  Colorado, for example, outperformed some smart growth states by supporting local government efforts to pursue effective land use planning within a regional context.

In this state we’re in, Lincoln Institute researchers saw the impact of a lukewarm commitment to smart growth.  They found that our state plan offers a lot of promise, but its lack of regulatory teeth blunted its impact in day-to-day development decision making at the local level.  Regional planning in the Pinelands and Meadowlands, however, did achieve environmental and economic goals.

So where does this analysis leave us?  Should we scrap our state plan because it’s not a clear road to peaceful coexistence between economic prosperity and environmental stewardship?

New Jersey’s experience with the Pinelands, Meadowlands, and Highlands shows us that regional planning with some regulatory mechanisms is an effective means to achieve smart land use planning goals.  But that approach leaves a majority of the state still subject to uneven and spotty land use planning, uncoordinated road, sewer and water infrastructure investments, and continued de-investment in our cities, towns, and urban and suburban communities.

As a former member of the State Planning Commission, it is unfortunately all too easy for me to see where New Jersey has gone wrong.

With our state’s strong “home rule” tradition, few of our 566 municipalities are willing to give up any local land use control for the opportunity to plan and make land use decisions regionally.  Few of our state agencies are willing to coordinate their spending and regulatory programs in line with the policies of the state plan. Our legislators are unwilling to buck the builders’ lobby to change the rules of the development game.  And even fewer of our governors over the past 20 years have required the use of the state plan for spending, planning or investing in our future.   All of these missing pieces could be assembled by a governor committed to a smart growth plan.

Until we have the full backing, support and muscle of such a governor, our efforts at smart growth will continue on their bumpy path they have since the 1930s.

You can read the entire Lincoln Institute report online at http://www.lincolninst.edu/pubs/smart-growth-policies.aspx.  And I hope you will consult New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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