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October 21, 2003

War on Sprawl in New Jersey Hits a Wall


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 regulatory changes.

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, officials said.

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, not me."

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' association.

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 taking."

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 county-by-county basis.

"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, officials said.

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 services.

"We're not talking about that anymore," a staff member said.

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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