Regional Planning Efforts Deliver Results
October 14th, 2010 by Chris Sturm
- Since the adoption of its first Comprehensive Management Plan in 1981, the Pinelands Commission has steered development away from environmentally sensitive areas, safeguarding the region’s aquifer, blueberry and cranberry farms and other natural resources. Through 2002, the most recent year for which data are available, fewer than five homes per year had been approved in the core Preservation Area.
- Municipalities in the Pinelands region enjoy better economic health than municipalities in the non-Pinelands towns of South Jersey, as measured by unemployment rates, property taxes, property values, growth of new business establishments and “effective tax rates,” a key indicator of municipal fiscal stress.
- Since its creation in 1968, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission has promoted a balance of orderly economic development and environmental protection and restoration in the Meadowlands District. The district has experienced more than $2 billion dollars in development over the past four decades, resulting in more than $9 billion in tax revenue for district municipalities. Over the same time period, the commission has preserved more than 4,000 acres of environmentally sensitive wetlands and helped create 21 parks with more than 10 miles of hiking trails. More than 280 species of birds now call the Meadowlands their permanent or seasonal home.
- Forty years ago, there were 51 mostly unregulated landfills in the Meadowlands. Today, there is one operating landfill. Its revenue helps fund the commission’s activities, including appropriation over the last seven years of nearly $10 million in direct aid to the region’s 14 municipalities.
Success Linked to Consolidated, Region-Wide Decision-Making
Regional land use planning has been used successfully in New Jersey to manage resources that transcend municipal boundaries. It is enabled when the Legislature transfers municipal authority to plan and regulate development to a regional planning agency. Regional planning consolidates land use decision-making in a way that not only allows for a bigger-picture perspective, but also can provide greater efficiency, accountability and technical resources than individual municipalities acting alone.
The Pinelands Commission was created by the Pinelands Protection Act in 1979 to protect the region’s natural and cultural resources, including the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer system and its estimated 17 trillion gallons of pure water. The Pinelands region spans 53 municipalities in seven counties and covers 22 percent of the state.
The Hackensack Meadowlands Reclamation and Development Act of 1968 charged the Meadowlands Commission with providing for environmental protection, orderly development and solid waste disposal facilities in a 30-square-mile region that encompasses portions of 14 municipalities in Bergen and Hudson counties. This is accomplished, in part, through a unique tax-sharing arrangement among the municipalities.
Both the Pinelands and Meadowlands commissions continue to actively manage growth and preservation activities in accordance with their specific statutory mandates, and are upheld as national models.
The state’s most recent regional planning legislation, the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act of 2004, was designed to protect water resources in a region covering 88 municipalities and 17 percent of the state’s land area. The Highlands Council adopted a Regional Master Plan in 2008 —and recently approved the first municipal petition for conformance from Byram Township.
The Highlands effort has not been without controversy. For example, some landowners contend their property values have been unfairly reduced, while some environmentalists protest that land use protections should be stronger. Similar tensions have existed over the years in both the Pinelands and Meadowlands, where experience has shown that a steady commitment from the state, combined with a strong regional planning entity, can resolve them equitably. If the state remains resolved to protecting water resources in the Highlands, the regional planning powers exercised by the Highlands Council will be essential to success. With time and commitment, New Jersey’s experience in the Pinelands and Meadowlands makes it clear that regional planning delivers results.