Towns trying to take control of their futures


By: Packet Editorial
   In a state where decisions about what gets built, when it gets built and where it gets built have been driven almost entirely by private developers, it’s interesting to see how many New Jersey municipalities are now searching for innovative ways to control the development of what precious little land they have left.
   Beginning with the housing boom that followed World War II, and continuing virtually up to the present day, the pattern of development all across New Jersey has been essentially the same: A developer buys a large parcel of open space (often a farm) and, depending on the local zoning, either converts it into a shopping center, industrial park, office complex, strip mall or some similar sprawling enterprise or subdivides it into residential lots and puts up a housing development.
   For years, New Jersey’s growing suburbs welcomed this kind of development. Land was plentiful, suburban life was desirable and growth was highly profitable. Farmers made big money on the sale of their properties, developers made big money on the conversion of these properties to commercial or residential use and the towns made big money on the tax receipts generated by the conversion. Everybody came out a winner.
   The tide began to turn when the people who had moved to the suburbs, and the municipal governments that serve them, started to see some of the hidden costs of unbridled growth. Traffic for one. Expensive new schools for another. Pretty soon, residents were clamoring for slower growth — or no growth at all — but the municipalities found themselves powerless to oblige. Their master plans and zoning ordinances not only allowed but encouraged certain types of development to take place in certain areas. Once a developer had purchased a big chunk of open space with an eye toward converting it into a cash cow, it was too late to close the barn door.
   Moreover, if a municipality didn’t allow for this kind of continued economic growth, its property taxes would go through the roof — and the elected officials responsible would soon pay the price at the polls.
   West Windsor was one of the first municipalities in the state to formulate a strategy for seizing control of its own destiny. It sought to do so by adopting an innovative timed-growth ordinance, which would allow the township, rather than developers, to decide the timing, pace and sequence of future growth and development. It was a very creative approach — a little too creative, as it turned out, to pass constitutional muster. In the absence of specific enabling legislation, the courts ruled, timed growth, though a noble objective, was without legal foundation.
   A somewhat less ambitious approach is now being taken by Montgomery, which distinguished itself by being the second fastest-growing municipality in the state in the 1990s. In an effort to preserve open space without stifling residential growth, the township has come up with an ordinance that would allow developers to cluster houses on relatively small lots in exchange for leaving the leftover land untouched.
   This strategy, called conservation design, would be voluntary; the township would have no basis for turning down a development that didn’t incorporate conservation design, but a smart developer might find that voluntary compliance saves a lot of time and aggravation at the planning and zoning boards. The aggravation factor may not have calculable value, but in the development business, time is definitely money.
   A similar strategy under discussion in Princeton would reward resourceful developers who incorporate energy efficiency and/or environmental sensitivity into their building design. Again, compliance would be voluntary, with the incentive coming in the form of a more friendly and agreeable regulatory body than a less inventive developer might face.
   Will these approaches work? Who knows? Are they worth trying? Let’s put it this way: Even if they have no effect at all on how New Jersey develops in the future, they can’t be any worse than the approach we have taken in the past.