One Township Blazes a Trail but the State Must Help it Along
April 14th, 2008 by Jay Corbalis
- Woolwich Township, a 21-square-mile municipality in Gloucester County, is the fastest-growing community in New Jersey and the second fastest-growing in the Northeast; since 1990, its population has increased six-fold.
- Woolwich officials have proposed a comprehensive overhaul of the township’s land-use regulations that would preserve thousands of acres of open space while channeling future growth into two designated town centers.
- As part of its smart-growth plan, Woolwich would be the first community to implement a transfer of development rights (TDR) program under the state’s TDR enabling legislation.
Award-Winning Plan is at Crossroads
Although the farms of Gloucester County have long been known for their delicious peaches and tomatoes, the last two decades have seen the explosion of a different kind of crop: McMansions. While many municipalities in the county remained stable or even lost population during this period, the mostly rural townships along the county’s main east-west corridor, Route 322, saw double- or even triple-digit gains. Since 1990, Harrison has grown by 150 percent; South Harrison and Mantua by 48 percent; and Woolwich by 521 percent. Much of this growth has come in the form of large-lot, auto-dependent residential subdivisions.
In response to this growth, the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), released a study titled “Managing Change along the Route 322 Corridor.” The study called for higher-density, mixed-use developments with a parallel street network at specific points along the corridor to help relieve congestion. The State Development and Redevelopment Plan also calls for this type of development in the area. But so far, only one municipality in the study area has attempted to implement these recommendations: Woolwich.
Woolwich’s plan, which has received awards from the DVRPC and the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, is centered around an innovative TDR program that would maintain landowner equity while ensuring that growth occurs where it makes the most sense. The plan would create two mixed-use, walkable town centers while simultaneously preserving more than 4,000 acres of open space and farmland.
The township will be seeking plan endorsement from the State Planning Commission at the commission’s April 18 meeting. Even if it receives this endorsement, however, there is a real possibility that Woolwich’s plan may never get off the ground. Major, unresolved issues regarding wastewater capacity and transportation infrastructure have the potential to jeopardize the future of Woolwich’s smart-growth plan.
For example, while state transportation funds have been committed for a bypass along Route 322 in nearby Mullica Hill (a bypass necessitated by years of poor land-use planning), no funds have been made available for critical improvements along the Woolwich stretch of the roadway. This issue, and others, are not insurmountable. But they will require the timely and pro-active involvement of state agencies, particularly the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Protection, to be resolved.
The success or failure of Woolwich’s plan will have serious implications not just for South Jersey, where Woolwich is literally on the front lines in the battle against sprawl, but also for the state as a whole. Because Woolwich is the first community to attempt to use TDR under the enabling state legislation, the outcome of the township’s plan will almost certainly influence other municipalities considering similar action. In formulating the plan, Woolwich officials expended considerable time and resources in an attempt to make the state’s vision for smart growth a reality. They should be rewarded, not penalized, by state agency actions.