Smart Growth FAQ
Some frequently-asked questions about how smart growth would affect New Jersey’s future development.
So what is “smart growth?”
Smart growth means making land-use decisions that steer new growth to the places where it does our economy, and our environment, the most good: specifically, in and near existing communities where we’ve already invested in roads, sewers, schools and services. Smart growth means rebuilding today’s older towns, suburbs and cities – rather than building on our last open lands. Smart growth maximizes the investments we’ve already made in our homes and communities, even as it protects our last farmlands, shoreline and woodlands from further development. It increases our choice of good communities and homes in which to live, and our choice of how to get around.
What is sprawl?
Sprawl is the opposite of smart growth. A sprawling development consumes a large quantity of open land and dedicates it to the benefit of relatively few people. It’s disconnecting, placing jobs and stores distant from homes, and vice versa; it occurs without regard for how it links to existing development that could complement it. It’s auto-dependent, multiplying traffic by offering few if any other options for travel. Unique local characteristics are often lost, making one place look like another. Strip malls, tract housing and corporate campuses are its major components. And it’s not cost-efficient. Sprawling development demands new taxes to duplicate sewers, roads, services and schools that already exist (and are sometimes under-used) in surrounding communities. In this way, it drains and diminishes our investment in existing suburbs, towns and cities.
How can smart growth help New Jersey’s traffic and taxes?
Traffic problems are directly linked to the way we use the land. For every 1 percent increase in developed land, traffic increases by 1.5 percent. We cannot build our way out of congestion until we link land use and transportation decisions. Smart growth provides a means of doing just that. A great deal of today’s traffic results from our inability to accomplish even the simplest tasks without driving. In New Jersey’s older towns and suburbs, traffic is much less of a problem than in newly built suburbs because these older communities offer walking, biking and transit choices for moving around. Such choices are a hallmark of smart growth.
The sprawling land use patterns we have pursued in recent decades drive up property taxes in both newer suburbs and in the cities and inner suburbs left behind in the race for ratables. While the first wave of development may seem to pay for itself, and even lower taxes in some cases, as people make their homes in the new sprawling developments the demand for services rise-and the new schools, libraries, roads and parks and their maintenance all must be funded from local property taxes. These new places drain people and jobs from the older towns and cities, where costs to maintain old infrastructure remains high and the service needs of the people who cannot afford the new suburbs rises. Smart growth can break this cycle by making better use of our existing infrastructure thereby reducing the amount of new roads, sewers and schools we need to build.
What does the State Plan have to do with smart growth?
The New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan has earned national admiration honestly – it is the best tool we have to achieve smart growth. The State Plan calls for focusing growth where we have existing infrastructure and investment – cities, suburbs and small towns – and away from open lands. It is the most participatory document ever created in New Jersey. Citizens as well as local and state officials have collaborated to create a map and policies which, when implemented, will help New Jersey achieve smart growth.
Why do we have so much sprawl and disinvestment in older places if we have a State Plan?
Though nearly a decade old, we’ve just begun to implement the State Plan. Two Governors have issued orders requiring state agencies to follow the State Plan. However, these executive orders alone cannot result in full implementation of the State Plan. State laws and regulations must also change to encourage compliance with the Plan’s goals. In the end, it is municipalities, not the state, which make most land-use decisions. Some incentives have been created that make it attractive for municipalities to use the Plan. However, there are not enough incentives and municipalities do not have enough tools to achieve the outcomes envisioned in the Plan. Realizing the goals of the Plan will require state-level leadership by a Governor and Legislature who believe New Jersey deserves smarter growth, and who are ready to offer the incentives, and consequences, for making it happen.
Doesn’t “smart growth” really mean “no growth?”
No. It means vibrant, disciplined growth. Experts estimate New Jersey will gain as many as 1 million new residents by 2020. Rebuilding today’s suburbs, towns and cities is the smartest way to accommodate this growth, because it takes advantage of existing resources and investments in homes, sewers, roads, and transit lines. Rebuilding today’s communities is also the smartest way to preserve open lands. Growth is good, when it’s smart.
Aren’t smart growth policies expensive?
On the contrary, by using existing infrastructure for new growth, costs can be greatly reduced. According to the 2000 Impact Assessment of the State Plan by Rutgers University, growth that followed the State Plan would save New Jersey at least $2.3 billion that would otherwise be spent on new roadway construction and sewer and water upgrades. Growth according to the State Plan would help New Jersey’s economy by reducing local government costs by some $160 million every year.
Didn’t we solve the open-land problem with the million-acre initiative?
No. We do not have enough money to buy all the land that needs saving. We must look also to stronger planning. The statewide program to buy and preserve a million acres of open land was a terrific first step. However, it was only a first step. Further work needs to be done – between 1986 and 1995 (the most recent years measured), New Jersey’s land consumption was more than triple the rate of population growth. Six of New Jersey’s counties developed at least 10 percent of their available land in that decade alone. This trend of unprecedented and rapid land consumption – and its corollary of community abandonment – demonstrate the need for expanding efforts to safeguard open land with planning and regulations, as well as outright purchase.
What do voters think about smart growth?
Poll after poll demonstrates that the things New Jerseyans care most about – taxes, traffic, schools, crime, even auto insurance – are made worse by sprawl, and can be cured by smarter growth. Voters overwhelmingly support the smart growth goals of the State Plan – 86 percent find controlling suburban sprawl an “important” aim, 90 percent favor preserving open space, 90 percent think urban revitalization crucial, 94 percent want traffic congestion eased quickly, and 96 percent support the promotion of economic growth, according to a January 2001 poll conducted by The Star-Ledger-Eagleton Rutgers. A clear majority of voters (67 percent) wants to steer new growth towards existing population centers, and away from open land and farmlands. In a New Jersey Future poll conducted last year, 54 percent of voters think restricting development is the best way to conserve open land, rather than having the government buy it.
How would smart growth benefit voters in rural, suburban, and urban settings?
In rural settings, farmland preservation would be strengthened by regulations as well as outright purchase, protecting farming for the long run at lower cost to taxpayers. Investment and growth in existing communities would be encouraged. Rural communities would be allowed to retain their rural character if desired, and not pushed into chasing additional development to satisfy the need for additional property taxes. Under smart growth, today’s excessive municipal reliance on property taxes would be reduced by reforming the property tax system through such means as regional tax sharing.
In suburban settings, encouraging investment in existing suburban communities maintains or increases property values – especially for newer suburban homes, which today may lose value at closing to unabated new construction on surrounding open land. Such investment also increases housing options and transportation choices not possible in today’s sparsely settled sprawling developments. The development pressure of today’s ratable chase would be lessened, allowing suburbs to preserve open land, while maintaining enough tax revenue to run high-quality schools and municipal services.
In cities and older suburbs, revitalization instead of abandonment is another hallmark of smart growth. Using existing infrastructure, and cultural and commercial attractions to lure businesses, middle-class families and empty nesters back into the cities and older suburbs would provide more choices for living and working.
What do municipal leaders and county planners think about smart growth?
Mayors, planning board chairs and county executives expressed their desire for a stronger State Plan in November 1999 interviews commissioned by New Jersey Future, to aid their fight against the “relentless race to develop the land” that conflicts with voters’ new desire to preserve open land. Community leaders see redevelopment as important for its own sake, regardless of the type of community they inhabit – and recognize its importance to the battle against sprawl and for the preservation of open land.