They’re riding a fast track to Nowhereville


Greg Bean

Say you’re having lunch in almost any Monmouth County restaurant — Freehold, Tinton Falls, Marlboro, Manalapan, it doesn’t really matter — and see a couple of shady-looking guys in the parking lot passing a paper bag.

Do you:

Assume it’s a pair of winos sharing a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 and call the local cops before they get drunk and start some kind of ruckus. Drinking in public, after all, is against the law.

Assume there’s some sort of drug deal going down and call the officers of the local drug task force. We all share a civic duty to report this kind of suspicious behavior whenever we see it because we need to protect the kids.

Assume it’s a crooked developer passing another bribe to a Monmouth County Republican official, or one of their lackeys, and call the FBI. Better yet, just walk out to that van at the edge of the parking lot and knock. Chances are good there are some FBI agents inside it taping the whole deal.

Mug the two guys, take their paper bag and pass an equal share of the money in it to every resident of the town you happen to be in. Chances are, they’re all victims of these white-collar thugs, and this is the only victims compensation they’re ever going to get. What are they gonna do, after all? Call a cop? The FBI?

Even though it worked for Robin Hood, I can’t professionally advocate the last option, although it might provide a certain amount of personal satisfaction.

Like most people around here these days, I guess I’m just going to have to be patient and let the law work at its own pace. With the charging of Harry Larrison Jr.— a freeholder for nearly four decades and the dean of Monmouth County Republican politics — April 27 on allegations he took thousands of dollars in bribes from a couple of developers (using them as a sort of back-alley, human ATM whenever he wanted to take a trip to Florida), it sometimes looks like the FBI and the U.S. Attorney might end up nabbing nearly every politician in the region if we just wait long enough.

(The best part of the official complaint, and U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie’s press release about it, is that apparently on one occasion a developer was supposed to deliver a $5,000 payment to Larrison’s house, but only turned up with $3,500, thereby stiffing him for $1,500. I like to think that somebody had already mugged the bagman in a restaurant parking lot for the rest of the money).

It’s absolutely shocking. Shocking!

And the hits just keep on coming. Before many months have passed, there’ll be enough county officials and hangers-on under indictment to fill the PNC Bank Arts Center if they ever decide to have a reunion.

One of the few bright spots on a discouraging horizon came last week with news that people all over the state are mobilizing to repeal the so-called “fast track” law — a nearly pathologically insane measure signed by then-Gov. James E. McGreevey last July that sounds more like an opium-induced fantasy for developers than anything a rational person would consider good government.

I don’t know why this bill didn’t register on my radar screen when it left the governor’s desk, but I’m certainly glad someone was paying attention.

In essence, the fast-track law was intended to speed up the permitting process in so-called “smart growth” areas by limiting the amount of time a municipality has to take action on a developer’s application. According to reports in two of our company’s newspapers last week, under the law an applicant must be notified if a permit application is technically complete within 45 days after its filing, or it will be deemed complete. If action is not taken on an application within 45 days of its being deemed complete, it will automatically be approved and the development can move forward.

A current moratorium on the law is set to expire in May and the measure could be implemented by September.

Needless to say, that possibility is making a number of people very nervous, since it’s fairly apparent that, if anything, more time needs to be spent considering development applications in this state, not less.

Jeff Tittel, director of the N.J. Sierra Club, warns that “all fast track will do is make it worse quicker” by approving permits before environmental impact studies are complete, bypassing local ordinances and health laws, providing no checks and balances or ethical standards.

Fast track, he says, is “sprawl on steroids.”

Steve Masticola, a No 92 activist from South Brunswick, called the bill a formula for “pay to pave” political corruption and open space destruction.

The New Jersey Environmental Federation calls it “the worst environmental law passed in New Jersey’s history.”

And it isn’t just the tree-huggers, crystal gazers and hummus eaters who think this law is a stinker.

As of this writing, there are over 50 bills before the Legislature to repeal the fast track law, and municipal leaders like some of those in East Brunswick, South Brunswick and Milltown in Middlesex County are joining the chorus of those in opposition to this McGreevey-era craziness.

As far as I’m concerned, those folks deserve a pat on the back.

At a time when it’s starting to look like all a developer needs to get a permit is an empty parking lot and a paper bag full of cash, I’m glad to hear about some sane people who think the last thing we want is to make it even easier for potentially controversial and harmful development projects to be approved. There’s counter-intuitive, and then there’s loony — and this fast track nonsense is as loony as it gets.

If you agree, David Pringle, campaign director of the N.J. Environmental Federation, has some good advice. He urges state residents to contact their local legislators to demand repeal of this law before it’s implemented.

Let’s get those phone lines humming.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers.