New State Strategic Plan Reflects New Jersey Residents’ Wishes
Star-Ledger, Oct. 28, 2011
A wise man once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going … well, there you are.”
For the better part of the past two decades, New Jersey has tried to figure out where it should be going — or, perhaps more accurately, where it should be growing — with the guidance of a document called the State Development and Redevelopment Plan. This plan essentially spelled out how the state should channel economic growth and development into areas where infrastructure already existed, and discourage further sprawl into suburban and rural regions where open space, farmland and environmentally sensitive areas should be protected and preserved.
But despite broad agreement with this vision, this is not how — or where — New Jersey grew. It turns out that the State Plan, which looked good on paper, had too little impact on New Jersey’s development patterns. Over the past 20 years, growth has continued to spread through the suburbs into once-rural areas, infrastructure in our older cities and towns has often been neglected and jobs have decentralized away from cities and transit, burdening our workers with longer commutes.
So here we are — in a place where, according to a recent Monmouth University poll, 71 percent of residents feel the past two decades of development have made the state a less affordable place to live. Where 51 percent say it is now harder to drive from place to place because of the way the state has developed. Where nearly three in four residents say they would definitely (46 percent) or probably (27 percent) live in a place where they could walk to shops or jobs and that offered a variety of transportation choices. Two-thirds of New Jerseyans feel the state needs more of these kinds of communities.
The Christie administration, to its credit, has now dusted off the State Planning Act and incorporated its objectives in a new State Strategic Plan, which it introduced last week. While some of the details of this strategic plan are still being worked out, its emphasis on four themes — targeted economic growth, effective planning for vibrant regions, preservation and enhancement of critical state resources, and tactical alignment of government — takes a practical, action-oriented approach.
Unlike the State Plan, the new strategic plan does not divide the state into planning areas, an exercise that generated a great deal of controversy but did little to revitalize cities or slow the pace of sprawl development. The strategic plan calls instead for the establishment of criteria for identifying and designating “Priority Growth Investment Areas” and “Priority Preservation Areas.” The former would include major urban centers, municipally designated redevelopment areas and other locations where infrastructure can support growth. The latter would include lands protected for agricultural use, as well as those “identified as important to protect for preserving open space and critical environmental resources.”
Development and preservation would be guided by a list of 10 “Garden State Values,” the very first of which calls for exactly the kind of development New Jerseyans say they want — compact, mixed-use neighborhoods that conserve land, offer shopping and services within easy reach of home and jobs, and are built with what the strategic plan calls “suitable design and densities that support walking, biking and public transportation.”
The task of implementing the new plan will fall to a new cabinet-level steering committee, which will be responsible for ensuring that the functional plans of state agencies, as well as their programs, regulations and capital spending, are made consistent with the State Strategic Plan. This is a critically important step, and a departure from past practice; one of the key reasons the State Plan was less effective than it might have been was the failure of state agencies to coalesce around it, integrate it into their own functional plans and direct their discretionary spending to programs and projects that actually carried it out.
Will the new State Strategic Plan succeed where the old State Development and Redevelopment Plan failed? That will depend, in large part, on how active a role Gov. Christie is willing to play in the plan’s implementation. Previous governors paid lip-service to state planning, but none used the full power of the office to compel executive agencies with competing and sometimes conflicting missions and agendas — environmental protection, transportation, agriculture, economic development — to amend their functional plans, pool their resources and work toward a shared vision of targeted growth, regional planning and natural resource preservation.
What New Jersey’s State Strategic Plan offers is a roadmap to a healthy, prosperous, sustainable future. Whether we get there, however, will depend almost entirely on how firm a grip the person driving state policy for at least the next two years is prepared to keep on the steering wheel.
(More information about the State Strategic Plan)