State Planning: A Picture of Neglect
September 28th, 2009 by Jay Corbalis
- Of the 10 public and local government positions on the State Planning Commission, only five are filled—three of them by holdovers whose terms have formally expired. Several seats have been vacant for more than a year. The full commission consists of 17 members; it currently has 12.
- The required update of the State Development and Redevelopment Plan is now five years overdue. The plan, which by law must be updated every three years, was last updated in 2001. A draft interim plan was released in 2009; the earliest it could be adopted is the spring of 2010.
- As recently as 2006, the State Planning Commission’s staff, the Office of Smart Growth, had 30 members, including planners, GIS experts, policy advisers and support staff. After several years of attrition, the office is now down to 16 staff positions—only 10 of which are occupied.
State Planning Needed
Created by the State Planning Act of 1985, both the State Planning Commission and the Office of State Planning (now the Office of Smart Growth) were established to help coordinate state and local land-use planning in order to encourage beneficial economic growth, urban revitalization and needed housing while safeguarding the environment and preserving and protecting natural resources.
It was widely acknowledged then, and is still the case now, that New Jersey’s economic and environmental well-being depends on the ability of state and local governments to work together, rather than at cross-purposes. Coordination is needed to meet the many land-use challenges facing this small, densely populated state: open-space preservation, affordable-housing production, greenhouse gas reduction, urban revitalization and the protection of clean, safe drinking water and other natural resources. Within state government, it is likewise essential that agencies pursue policies and regulations that are complementary, rather than conflicting.
The state planning process was designed as a means to these ends. The cross-acceptance process would ensure that state and local governments collaborate to develop land-use policies and goals that complement one another. The State Planning Commission and the Office of State Planning would work to minimize conflict between and among state agencies in order to carry out the shared vision of the State Planning Act and the State Development and Redevelopment Plan adopted pursuant to it.
Plan Implementation Lags, Towns Caught in the Middle
Recently however, state planning has been virtually ignored as a coordinating instrument of state government. For example, many municipalities and landowners have been caught in the middle of an inter-agency tug of war, with the Council on Affordable Housing’s affordable-housing obligations pulling them in one direction and the Department of Environmental Protection’s Water Quality Management Rules that limit growth pulling them in another. Had these agencies coordinated their efforts through the state planning process, there is a good chance these conflicts could have been avoided.
As coordination lags at the state level, the five-year delay in updating the State Development and Redevelopment Plan has undermined the cooperative spirit between state and local governments that was painstakingly built during the cross-acceptance process. Beyond demonstrating the diminished role the plan plays as a guide for state policy, the lengthy delay trivializes the countless hours spent by state, county and municipal officials to craft a document that comes as close as possible to reflecting statewide consensus on where and how we grow.
Completing the picture of neglect, staff levels at the Office of Smart Growth have been shrinking, and vacancies on the State Planning Commission growing, for several years. After systematically leaving vacancies unfilled, the Office of Smart Growth is down to just 10 current employees, including the second acting director this year, while the State Planning Commission has just two active non-state members with current appointments.
Both the skeleton Office of Smart Growth and the vacancy-riddled State Planning Commission have done what they can to keep the state planning process alive and functioning. But their continued marginalization undermines the State Planning Act and its goal of achieving the well-functioning, coordinated state land-use policies that are essential to maintaining the high quality of life New Jersey residents enjoy.
What can be done to turn this situation around? That is one of the key questions participants will be looking to answer at the October 16 symposium, “Where Are We Growing? Planning for New Jersey’s Next 20 Years,” sponsored by New Jersey Future and the Policy Institute for the Region at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. For more information about the symposium, click here.
If you have any questions about this issue of Future Facts, please contact Jay Corbalis, Policy Analyst, at jcorbalisnjfutureorg (jcorbalisnjfutureorg) .