Twenty-five years ago the government of the densest state in the union passed the State Planning Act to address the issues of zoning, smart growth, and preservation.
But how has it worked? NJ Future, the Trenton-based research and policy advocacy group has joined with the Policy Research Institute for the Region (PRIOR) to present “Where Are We Growing? Planning New Jersey’s Next 20 Years” on Friday, October 16, at 8 a.m. at the Woodrow Wilson School on the Princeton University campus. To register for this free conference visit www.princeton. edu/prior/events/conferences.
Speakers include Michele Byers, executive director of the NJ Conservation Foundation; Jack Lettiere, former commissioner of transportation; and Peter Kasabach, executive director of NJ Future, among others. Former Governor Tom Kean, whose administration saw the passing of the State Planning Act, is scheduled to appear as well.
Plus and minus. PRIOR director Richard Keevey, who served as Kean’s deputy budget director in the 1980s, says the chief triumph of the State Plan has been its very existence. To have a plan is to have a direction, and though he says states such as Massachusetts have designed better plans, New Jersey, by nature of its being among the first to enact an official plan, has blazed many a trail.
Kasabach says, “The issues of where and how to grow are now paid attention to. Even if it’s not in the rules.”
The residual effect of having the State Plan, Kasabach says, is that a groundswell of planners, officials, and environmentalists have been able to focus on a concrete direction — and, perhaps miraculously, largely have ended up on the same page.
“You could sit in a room and pretty much get the same answers from all these guys,” Kasabach says. Everyone agrees that growth must be made in concert with environmental, legal, and public policy concerns. “I don’t think that necessarily would have happened without the State Plan.”
Where the State Plan falls short, of course, is in getting those agreeable people to agree on an actual way to do it. “I think its major shortcoming is that it was designed as a guide,” Kasabach says. It is too vague in spots, too open to interpretation.
The regional approach. Keevey, who once lived in Virginia, says that the difference between public policy implementation there and here is that in Virginia and many states, policy is enacted by counties. New Jersey, with its 566 distinct municipalities, is the embodiment of individualism. There are 21 counties here, but public planning almost always is done at the municipal level, even when it affects more than one town.
Keevey would like to see more consolidation, an offshoot of his first job with the state in 1967, where he studied consolidation for numerous towns in New Jersey, including East Windsor and Hightstown. A public referendum in 1968 almost merged the two, but missed by a few hundred votes.
Citing fears of a loss of identity, towns simply will not give up control, and the result is stalled planning in a state that badly needs more cooperation. “Time and time again I bring it back to Princeton Borough and Princeton Township,” he says. “They can’t even agree on a police force.”
Kasabach agrees that undue attachment to a town’s identity can hinder progress, but says that the diversity each town offers can be valuable to the process well. For 150 years, he says, we did everything as towns. It’s only the last 50-plus years that we have started to look regionally. “There’s something to be said for having a lot of access points, for ownership at the municipal level,” he says.
Going to school. Kasabach says, the solution to smart growth — the nuts and bolts of what to build and where and how to pay for it — comes down less to the maintenance of identity than to the need to remove the burden of land use from school tax rolls. School funding is culled from property taxes, only school tax rates are significantly higher than municipal rates. Spreading school taxes over the largest possible population, rather than just those in a specific district, Kasabach argues, will reduce burdens, particularly on the poorest districts.
European influence. In the past decade the state’s architects, planners, and land use attorneys have been pushing for sustainability standards that would have seemed radical even as recently as the late 1990s. Many of these professionals are citing European counterparts as an inspiration for both form and ideals.
Kasabach says, however, that Europeans are not necessarily more enlightened than we are, they just encountered these problems earlier. In general, he says, the size of the United States has somewhat inhibited the acceptance of forward-thinking environmental standards, whereas in Europe, where most countries are the same size as America’s small-to-midsized states, density and environmental issues simply became a problem much sooner.
“But they solved the problems,” Kasabach says. And he is encouraged by how American planners have embraced the concepts of recycling, rehabilitation, and reusing existing grounds and structures. “It’s not like we’re kicking down the suburbs,” he says.
Keevey received his bachelor’s and an MBA from Penn. He has served as CFO for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the deputy undersecretary of defense for financial management, the director of the Defense Finance and Accounting Agency at the Department of Defense, and the director of the state Office of Management and Budget for the state.
In the private sector, he has worked for Arthur Andersen as the director of budget and finance practice; as director of core administration programs for Unisys; and as the director of performance management at the National Academy of Public Administration.
He also has taught graduate courses in public finance at American University, the University of Maryland, Seton Hall, and Princeton University.
Kasabach was born in Trenton and spent his youth in the expanding town of Hamilton. He also attended Penn, where he majored in real estate and entrepreneurial management, earning his bachelor’s in economics in 1989. Upon graduation Kasabach spent two years in California, doing “what every young boy does in California.”
Kasabach slowly grew into the concept of urban planning as a career. He returned to his home state, and joined Isles, the Trenton-based non-profit designed to help New Jersey communities with programs from job training to home-finding.
After 11 years he became chief of housing for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.
Last year Kasabach took over as executive director of New Jersey Future, a non-profit that advocates for state growth to include environmentally protected areas, maintenance of neighborhoods, and more diverse communities.
While both Keevey and Kasabach say the State Plan has had its share of ups and downs, both feel that now is the time to explore where the future lies. Kasabach, however, warns not to expect too much too quickly. “There are very few cataclysmic moments where everything changes,” he says.”
The past few years have seen a lack of interest in long-range planning, largely as an outcropping of the economy that has forced us all to think in the now.
But as the economy heals, Kasabach says, and especially before it goes back to bullish, we need to start thinking ahead, with patience and with bold ideas.