NYTimes.com Article: War on Sprawl in New Jersey Hits a Wall
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War on Sprawl in New Jersey Hits a Wall
October 21, 2003
By IVER PETERSON
TRENTON, Oct. 20 - Nine months after Gov. James E.
McGreevey promised to wage the nation's toughest
anti-sprawl campaign in its most crowded state, his bold
growth-control proposals are all but in tatters.
The governor and his staff conceded in recent interviews
that a divided Legislature and opposition from builders
made it pointless to introduce the most far-reaching
anti-sprawl laws he outlined in a fiery State of the State
address in January, when he vowed to take on "those who
profit from the strip malls and McMansions."
Instead, Mr. McGreevey, a Democrat in his first term as
governor, will focus on less controversial legislative and
And on Friday, the administration abandoned the BIG map,
for Blueprint for Intelligent Growth, which had divided the
state into areas open for more growth, some growth and no
growth. Those elements will be absorbed into another plan,
Controlling sprawl in New Jersey is a universally popular
idea in the abstract but becomes politically fraught when
it comes to telling builders where to build, towns how to
zone, and residents where they can live.
"Everyone's against sprawl, but the problem is they also
live in it," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra
Club's New Jersey chapter. "It's sort of like being in
traffic, where it's the guy next to me who is the problem,
Besides Mr. McGreevey's largely abandoned legislative
agenda, the BIG map represented an effort to create a
statewide development plan, with regions delineated in
green, yellow and red to designate areas for growth, little
growth and no growth.
On the Department of Environmental Protection's anti-sprawl
Web site on Monday, a message read in part, "To avoid
confusion and misinterpretations, while further revisions
are considered, the BIG map has been removed."
The New Jersey Builders Association, the governor's
strongest opponent in his growth management campaign, liked
to call the abandoned BIG map the Big Red Map, after the
large areas that it placed off-limits.
"The D.E.P.'s inconsistency regarding the Big Red Map is
symptomatic of the broader disarray that characterizes the
administration's policies with respect to planning for New
Jersey's future and the housing needs of its families,"
said Patrick J. O'Keefe, chief executive of the builders'
But Bradley M. Campbell, the commissioner of environmental
protection, defended the decision and said the governor was
not retreating from his campaign to manage growth.
"This is not a retreat at all," Mr. Campbell said in an
interview. "In fact, it is another step forward we are
Mr. Campbell said the BIG map's environmental protection
data on endangered species and watershed protection areas
would be incorporated in the 11-year state plan, which
spells out growth management objectives on a
"This was our stated objective from the outset," Mr.
Campbell said. "That message was simply drowned out by the
builders, but we achieved what we said we were going to do
all along. The builders just spent the last nine months on
what really has been a red herring."
The governor's legislative agenda, spelled out in January
and again in March, has less of a future, at least for now,
In his earlier speeches, Mr. McGreevey said he would
introduce new land-use laws to let municipalities charge
builders for even the cost of their construction away from
the site, on school capacity and roads.
Another law was to give municipalities the power to block
developments that they deemed did not meet local long-term
goals for traffic.
Yet another widely discussed notion was to allow towns to
spread out development over long periods, to reduce the
impact of sudden population growth on schools, roads and
"We're not talking about that anymore," a staff member
All that remains of Mr. McGreevey's legislative agenda are
a noncontroversial proposal to help farmers sell
development rights, giving the developer who pays for them
a bigger project somewhere else, and possibly one allowing
towns to charge developers additional fees.
These proposals will probably be introduced in January,
when the Legislature returns after next month's elections
for a lame-duck session, the governor said last week.
Mr. McGreevey's policies have had some significant impacts.
He has used his environmental regulatory powers to close
7,865 acres around reservoirs to development, and to impose
buffers along 69 miles of rivers and streams.
Mr. McGreevey also won legislative approval of three public
referendum questions for the Nov. 4 election. One would
increase state borrowing to buy open space, another would
help pay to clean up polluted industrial sites for
redevelopment, and a third would speed up repairs of public
parks, waterways and dams.
In pressing to go beyond these measures, however, the
governor encountered considerable resistance.
"We spent two or three months working with the stakeholders
for a consensus, and we couldn't get an agreement," a
McGreevey official concerned with land-use issues said on
the condition of anonymity. "Second, the Legislature has no
appetite for this. Zero."
The Legislature's reluctance to take on far-reaching
changes in land-use laws in an election year, when builders
contribute heavily to campaigns, has left the governor's
staff members with sour feelings toward the lawmakers.
"I don't think anyone was under any illusion that the
Legislature was not and is not under the thrall of the
builders' lobby to a large extent," a different McGreevey
official said, also on the condition of anonymity.
But many legislators maintain that Mr. McGreevey oversold
his anti-sprawl campaign, and particularly erred in
singling out developers for public criticism in his State
of the State address. The builders' association played his
speech over and over on television monitors at its Atlantic
City convention shortly afterward.
"I think the governor probably went too far in the State of
the State to demonize home builders and office park
builders, as if they were somehow the cause of our problems
here in New Jersey," said State Senator John H. Adler, a
Cherry Hill Democrat. "I think he was trying to galvanize
public support, but I think his rhetoric got a little bit
ahead of him."
The governor, in an interview last week, seemed to agree.
"Maybe the rhetoric got a little overheated," Mr. McGreevey
said, "but we had to motivate people for change."
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