Mayor plays key role on Planning Commission

Smart growth ideas include revamping
affordable housing rules

By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

Smart growth ideas include revamping
affordable housing rules
By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

JERRY WOLKOWITZ In January Red Bank Mayor Edward J. McKenna was named to the new State Planning Commission. On the panel he has been a strong voice for strengthening the enforcement of the plan and revamping the affordable housing guidelines.JERRY WOLKOWITZ In January Red Bank Mayor Edward J. McKenna was named to the new State Planning Commission. On the panel he has been a strong voice for strengthening the enforcement of the plan and revamping the affordable housing guidelines.

A major change in the state’s approach to affordable housing will be part of Gov. James McGreevey’s "smart growth" initiative, according to Red Bank Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr.

A newly constituted New Jersey State Planning Commission is redefining the state’s development policies, including its affordable housing program, to encourage growth in cities, according to McKenna, who was appointed to the commission earlier this year.

Affordable housing and the state’s Council on Affordable Housing are issues "people will hear a lot about from the State Planning Commission," McKenna said.

McKenna said he is in favor of revamping some of the commission’s policies.

"I think we ought to re-examine the whole regional contribution agreement concept, so we can take regional contribution monies and direct more of them to areas where growth should be taking place," explained McKenna, who was appointed as a public member of the commission by Gov. James E. McGreevey.

The commission’s 17 members, who represent state and local government and the public, meet monthly and serve for three-year terms.

Describing himself as a staunch advocate of the creation of affordable housing opportunities, McKenna predicted the commission would take a new approach to affordable housing.

"One of my issues with Mount Laurel is that it’s fine to impose an affordable housing obligation on a municipality but if there aren’t jobs there, if there isn’t transportation there, what are we doing?" he asked. "We’re shoving people into areas where they may not want to be."

"Mount Laurel" refers to the court decision which requires municipalities to have a certain amount of affordable housing.

Changing affordable housing requirements could presage a change in the formula that bars municipalities from transferring more than 50 percent of their affordable housing obligation to other municipalities.

"If you’re a town that is rural in nature, is it proper for us to impose the obligation on you to create 1,000 affordable housing units just because you have land? It may be that the land is not in a location where people want to live or may be environmentally sensitive," he noted. "The commission is redefining this concept."

McKenna, who recently won re-election to a fourth term, credited his appointment to the State Planning Commission to the fact that both he and Red Bank are identified with a vision for successful revitalization.

"A lot had to do with the fact that myself as an individual, and Red Bank as a town, have been known for years to be advocates for smart growth," he said.

The planning process undertaken by his administration, the creation of a vision for the community, the formulation of a strategic revitalization plan, as well as the revision of the borough’s master plan and the execution of that plan, have become a role model for other areas, he said.

According to McKenna, it’s a common experience for him to attend meetings with state officials and hear Red Bank referred to as a model city.

"Red Bank is used as a template as to how to address issues of redevelopment and growth," he said. "I’m sure that’s why the governor asked me."

But it was more than a vision for Red Bank that got the attention of the McGreevey administration and led to his appointment, said McKenna, who sees his role on the commission as that of a catalyst.

"I think I’m there because I’m known to be outspoken and I have a very clear picture of where I think the state and commission should be going. And I’ve offered to help move the agenda of this administration forward because I think it is clearly headed in the right direction. I think it is time to reward communities that are following the State Plan by giving them the financial resources they need to see the State Plan come to fulfillment."

The role of the State Planning Commission has been refocused under the current administration, he said.

"I believe Governor McGreevey is sending a very clear message that this administration is serious about issues of smart growth — of limiting growth in areas where it shouldn’t take place and encouraging growth in areas where it should," he noted.

"So we are working on refocusing where growth is to take place, where it’s not to take place and putting teeth into the law so that resources will be specifically dedicated to areas where growth is going to be encouraged," he continued.

At a Smart Growth Summit last month, McGreevey called on the Legislature to give municipalities tools to help them grow in accordance with the smart growth principles of the State Plan. These include, he said, "impact fees, transfer of development rights, timed growth ordinances, transportation enhancement districts, inter-jurisdictional coordination of planning and site-plan review."

Through an executive order, McGreevey also directed the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin a "comprehensive program of regulatory reforms that will increase the predictability of regulatory outcomes, facilitate growth in appropriate areas (and) integrate the planning of other agencies."

The governor told the planning summit that the state budget, investments in infrastructure and the regulatory process would be focused on advancing the state’s smart growth agenda.

Among the strategies available to the commission to implement McGreevey’s mandate are infrastructure improvements, funding alternatives, technical teams to assist municipalities and help in expediting the approval process, McKenna said.

In addition, the review process can be streamlined, McKenna said.

"One of the things we’re talking about is implementing this sort of one-stop shopping where you can go to one agency and it will help coordinate approvals with other agencies," explained McKenna, who said commission members who represent state agencies are on board with the governor’s agenda.

‘The commission’s mission is to move the ball forward, to make sure things happen," he said. "You can tell by the tenor of the meetings that everybody’s on the same page."

"DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell has been very outspoken in saying he would like to shorten the approval process for applications that are in support of the State Plan," McKenna said, "and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Susan Bass Levin has taken on a very strong activist role in trying to work with the other agencies to coordinate planning, to help communities in their creation of a vision of what their communities should be."

"Everyone’s going to get together to encourage communities to do the right thing," McKenna explained. "If you’re in an area where growth is supposed to happen, they will work with you to make sure it does happen.

"If you’re in an area that is completely ignoring the State Plan, you’re not going to get the assistance you may seek because you’re not following the rules. We’re definitely going to change things."

McKenna said he and Commission Chairman Timothy Touhey, director of the Fannie Mae New Jersey Partnership Office, are outspoken proponents of the rebuilding of New Jersey cities, which has long been a concept of the State Plan.

"It’s always been a concept but it has not had the teeth it needed to have," McKenna observed, "so I believe you will see legislation introduced to reward those who follow its principles and to ensure that those who don’t follow it are discouraged from their position. Whether it be lack of funding, discretionary aid, you will see new incentives."

The idea of encouraging the rebuilding of the state’s cities is not new, McKenna said, but has become a priority under the administration of McGreevey, former mayor of Woodbridge.

"He has a unique perspective on how important the cities of the state are to its overall complexion," McKenna noted. "I believe that this governor has a sensitivity to the fact that New Jersey has the potential to have great cities but that potential hasn’t been addressed. Newark, Paterson, Camden and Elizabeth could be developed and they could be great places but it hasn’t worked out that way."

The dream of owning a home in the suburbs that drove the state’s development until now is being reversed and that trend is fueling the rebuilding of cities, he said.

"The psyche of individuals and society is changing. A lot of people now, and I think Red Bank is a prime example, would prefer to live in an urban setting," McKenna commented. "Red Bank is a microcosm of what we’ve been talking about when it comes to cities."

An attorney with a practice focused on land use and family law, McKenna said Red Bank’s successful revitalization plan was predicated on a process that involved the community in developing a vision plan for the borough.

"We had public meetings in different parts of town, we wanted as much input as possible," he said. "When we did a strategic revitalization plan we went to key agencies and asked what can we do and not do."

"The process we followed was important," McKenna noted. "I keep harping on this at the State Planning Commission. We need to help towns because too often, the biggest problem they have is figuring out what they want to be. Once they’ve done that, then it’s just figuring out how to get there."

"We want to provide technical assistance to towns that don’t have the resources to help them find themselves because there are towns that don’t even know they may be in a growth area and could be great towns."

The commission can do more than help towns develop a vision, he said, it can help with infrastructure, provide technical assistance, even funding to go through the planning process.

In Red Bank, which has 13,000 residents and is 90 percent developed, opportunities remain to encourage smart growth, he said. "I believe there are opportunities to create additional affordable housing units through creative redevelopment such as allowing an increased number of units in a zone," he explained.

In addition, he said the borough should partner with state agencies to provide affordable housing opportunities, predominately for first-time home-buyers and affordable rental opportunities. Plans also call for examining redevelopment opportunities along the waterfront on both the west and east sides, he noted.

"We have some pretty exciting ideas we will move forward," McKenna said.

On the state level, he said the State Planning Commission has set a new course for the future.

"There is a complete change in direction as far as the new members of the State Planning Commission," he noted. "We want action. We want things to happen. I didn’t accept the appointment to occupy a chair. I accepted it to move forward the governor’s agenda, that is, implementation of the State Plan."