Fear of School Kids Trumps Land-Use Planning in Robbinsville
May 4th, 2011 by Jay Corbalis
Before we dive into this, a disclaimer: We have no opinion on whether Sharbell’s proposal to remove age restrictions from 150 housing units in Robbinsville is a good idea or not.
In fact, we try to stay out of local land-use decisions and stick to state policy, and this case is no different. There may be plenty of valid reasons Sharbell’s proposal was wrong for Robbinsville, but when that township’s planning board voted to deny the developer’s application to convert the units because it would attract too many school kids, it raised the larger issue of the role of fiscal considerations in land-use decision-making at the local level.
As reported by the Messenger Press on Monday, the Robbinsville Planning Board rejected Sharbell’s proposal by a vote of 5-1, citing “concerns that the change would cause an influx of schoolchildren and a steep increase in school taxes.” The decision was met with cheers of approval from the crowd, which shared the board’s concern about the impact of the proposed conversion on local taxes. Even the Robbinsville Board of Education weighed in against the plan, saying, ““Any additional housing in Robbinsville that is not accompanied by a long-term plan to secure a new school facility will create undue financial hardship on district residents and harm the school district’s ability to properly educate the children already in its care.”
That a town would allow fiscal considerations to dictate its land-use policy is nothing new. Indeed, this phenomenon, known as the “Ratables Chase,” has been around for years. In 2003, New Jersey Future wrote this in a report calling for reform of the state’s property tax system: “Property taxes seriously skew housing choice. The property tax system drives many communities to favor commercial, industrial or senior housing developments over traditional family housing in order to limit school-age children.” More recently, New Jersey Future made light of the lengths to which towns will go to attract so-called “clean ratables” in its April Fool’s Day post about a fictional reality TV show called “Ratable Wars,” in which towns compete for a new shopping center (with the losing towns, appropriately, getting new housing).
This is not meant to disparage the residents and planning board of Robbinsville, who, it could be argued, were only acting in their rational self-interest. Rather, it serves as another example of the distortions in local land-use planning caused by the state’s property tax system. It is these same distortions that have resulted in a jobs-to-housing imbalance of 13:1 in the Route 1 region in Mercer County, and a protracted legal battle surrounding a proposed transit-oriented development at the Princeton Junction train station. Ultimately, achieving a sustainable system of local land-use decision-making that relies on sound planning principles, not short-term financial impacts, will require systemic property tax reform at the state level.
In the meantime, there are ways to incentivize towns to accept housing, such as the Smart Housing Zones initiative proposed by New Jersey Future in 2008. This program would have given towns a financial reward for each new unit of housing zoned for in smart growth areas, though the initiative died in the Legislature.
As for Robbinsville, the planning board’s decision is merely the first step in what will likely be a drawn-out legal dispute between the town and Sharbell, whose spokesman has already said the developer intends to appeal the ruling. As Robbinsville’s mayor put it, “There are no winners or losers, as I am sure we are headed to court. We simply end one chapter and open another.”