On October 19 Governor Chris Christie succeeded in doing something the previous half-dozen New Jersey governors could not — he earned praise from lawmakers, planning groups, and politicians from all ends of the spectrum regarding what to do about state planning and economic growth.
Christie introduced the “State Strategic Plan,” which seeks to concentrate economic development and residential growth in cities and towns and eliminate clunky laws that keep development at a standstill. For the past decade the state’s land use and development have been bogged down in concerns over urban sprawl and misguided rural development that replaced open space with large-property development.
The rapid development of the state’s rural and farm communities triggered state planning groups such as PlanSmart and NJ Future to call for a radical rethink in development policy. Such groups advocate redeveloping urban areas into transit villages, arguing that building houses on large-acre tracts is costly in materials and time traveling to and from more remote areas.
The Christie plan sets four specific goals for the state’s coming development:
Targeted Economic Growth. Christie hopes to appeal to industries “of statewide and regional importance” that will grow and provide jobs.
Effective Planning for Vibrant Regions. The plan seeks to guide and inform regional planning so that each region of the state can experience growth that is appropriate to the region and its assets and resources.
Preservation and Enhancement of Critical State Resources. The plan seeks to ensure that strategies for growth include preserving New Jersey’s natural, agricultural, scenic, recreation, and historic resources.
Tactical Alignment of Government. The plan seeks to allocate resources and foster “coordination, cooperation, and communication among those who play a role in meeting the mission of this plan.”
Stated in the plan is the need for the state’s leaders to “exercise sound decision-making as specific situations arise.” The plan makes five pledges to ensure that the four goals will be met:
Predictability. The state will offer a clearer path and quicker answers. The path and the answers offered by one department or agency will not conflict with those of another.
Spatial Efficiency. The state will place value on the economic, social, and environmental benefits of investing in areas where infrastructure already exists, in an effort to control long-term costs of public services, reinvigorate existing communities, and protect natural resources.
Leveraging Assets. The state will work with the private sector, higher education, and all levels of government to ensure that state assets are leveraged in strategic locations.
Sustainability. The state will plan for and respond to current and future challenges and opportunities through adaptive decision-making that accounts for social, economic, and environmental protection and enhancement.
Institutionalizing Change. The state will ensure that progress made is institutionalized in a way that can transcend time without perpetual recasting.
Christie’s plan to control growth and sprawl sparked immediate praise from PlanSmart and NJ Future, since the plan advocates much of what the two groups have long been calling for — concentrating development where there is existing infrastructure, state-supported projects to build town centers, transit villages, and walk-around communities, and identifying areas where homes and commercial centers should not be built. The last is a reversal of the state’s existing approach to land use, which has concentrated on finding new ways to attract growth and build ratables.
Another well-received aspect of Christie’s plan is his hope to foster statewide economic growth by investing in New Jersey’s key industries — pharmaceutical, biotech, healthcare, and manufacturing.
The plan establishes a steering committee to be headed by the governor’s office and requires state agencies to create functional plans to align state regulations, policies, and resources with the State Strategic Plan. This effectively takes the burden off individual communities, which have, under the current state plan (introduced in 2001), tackled growth and sprawl on a town-by-town basis.
Lucy Vandenberg, the executive director of Trenton-based PlanSmart, which advocates land use issues and regional planning, said her organization is pleased to see the State Strategic Plan “incorporate PlanSmart NJ’s principles of targeted geographic industry growth clusters and alignment of state agency regulations and resources to foster targeted smart growth areas.”
Vandenberg lauded the plan’s proposed geographic industry growth clusters based on employment sectors with high growth potential, an idea PlanSmart put forth at its planning and economic growth conference this past spring. A senior policy advisor for housing and urban revitalization under Governor Jim McGreevey, Vandenberg has long advocated rebuilding urban areas like Trenton and their suburbs, which suffered economic loss when manufacturing businesses left.
“We’ve all experienced first-hand how communities suffer when state agencies send conflicting messages,” said Richard Goldman, vice chairman of PlanSmart (formerly known as MSM and Regional Planning Partnership, based on Mapleton Road). “If this plan does nothing else, it must end state government’s practice of operating in silos when it comes to land-use.”
Vandenberg also advocates reworking laws and regulations that will allow a more seamless alignment with the plan. “We want to ensure that the policies put in place today are not undone tomorrow,” she said. “Predictability and transparency with regard to where growth should take place and where it shouldn’t are key to fostering growth and conservation.”
Peter Kasabach, executive director of NJ Future, which advocates sustainable environments, economies, and societies in New Jersey, said “No successful business can get where it wants to go without having a strategic plan, and no state can grow where it needs to grow without a clear strategy for investing in its long-term economic and environmental prosperity. We are pleased that the governor says he will take steps to make this happen.”
The only critics of the Christie plan so far are environmental organizations, which worry that the plan is too vague. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said that Christie’s intention to build where infrastructure already exists does not specify any areas, for example. Also, plans to grow and promote education, housing, recreation, transportation, and infrastructure need to be further identified. Tittel has said that Christie’s plan really could just be a catalyst for more sprawl.
The plan is awaiting approval by the State Planning Commission.