By Matthew Power. Like Maryland's former governor, Parris Glendening, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey has grabbed the sprawl bull by the horns. In New Jersey, he says, most of the biggest problems people face come back to one root cause.
"It is time to draw the line and say 'no more' to mindless sprawl," he says. "We must make our government a force for change rather than an instrument that is misused to enable more and more misplaced development."
The governor has plenty of issues to serve as anti-sprawl rallying points. Traffic congestion is worse than ever. Schools in many areas are underfunded and overcrowded, with the endemic trend of mass exodus to the suburbs rather than revivification of urban areas. And prime land is being lost to development at a rapid pace--although it should be noted that a good portion of that development is retail in nature.
Adding fuel to the Governor's urgency about development, a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council on New Jersey's coastal waterways claims that state officials have allowed so much damaging beachfront development that they have negated three years of environmental gains. The state EPA of New Jersey earned the lowest possible grade for wetland protection, because during a five-year period in the late 1990s, they approved 5,400 wetland permits, denying only 125. As we reported in Builder back in our July 2000 cover story, "Getting it Built," page 132, this ratio of rejection is fairly typical in other states as well.
The New Jersey environmental commissioner also has stepped up protective measures, announcing new rules expected to go into effect in about a year. They focus on protecting the state's fresh water supplies, by increasing the size of wetland and stream buffers from 50 feet to 300 feet. Builders assert that they are being punished unfairly for the state's poor handling of its water supply, but environmentalists note that without improved protection of the state's remaining watersheds, there may be no clean, fresh water left to argue about.
While not every state has a proactive governor, several northeast states have undertaken grassroots efforts to confront poorly planned development. In Vermont for example, 10 groups joined to form the Vermont Smart Growth Collaborative. They have already impacted legislature policies, getting the state to support incentives for building in more dense areas. In exchange, they promise to support growth where it is well planned, an effort that could make them welcome allies for builders pinned down by NIMBYism in growing regions.
Meanwhile, governors such as McGreevey have hit a nerve with voters: "There is no single greater threat to our way of life in New Jersey than the unrestrained, uncontrolled development that has jeopardized our water supplies, made our schools more crowded, our roads congested, and our open space disappear," asserts McGreevey. "We must find the will to stop development that costs more than it saves, takes more than it gives, and that diminishes our lives and degrades our surroundings.
"The message should be absolutely clear: If you want to build in over-developed or protected areas, we will do everything in our power to stop you. However, if you want to build and grow consistent with smart growth, then we will help you get regulatory approvals quickly and make sure the infrastructure is there to support you. That means we will have one state map that we will live by, and not one dollar of taxpayer money will be spent to subsidize sprawl anymore."
Sources: N.J. Governor's Office, The Associated Press, Philadelphia Inquirer
The Jersey Plan
1. Reform the open-space bonding process.
2. Devote $100 million to open-space protection (over three years).
3. Capital gains tax waiver for landowners who sell into open-space protection.
4. Empower the Attorney General to help towns fight against developers.
5. Empower towns with more zoning tools.
6. Allow towns to impose a one-year building moratorium.
7. Streamline smart growth-compliant regulatory approvals and supply infrastructure.
8. Impose impact fees that reflect the real costs of new schools and roads.