Regional cooperation, tax and zoning reform are all essential to Smart Growth.

Background/Issues

New Jersey has 566 municipalities with a strong “home rule” tradition, over 600 school districts, 21 counties, and countless other agencies, and authorities. Many local problems such as traffic congestion, degradation of water quality, fragmentation of open space, and the need for affordable housing all result from local decisions as well as regional trends. These can only be solved through regional cooperation.

New Jersey’s municipalities are also more dependent on locally raised revenues than almost anywhere else in the country. This creates vast inequities among the 566 communities because of their varying abilities to raise enough money to fund schools and other expensive infrastructure. It also causes towns to “chase” ratables and avoid housing in general and affordable housing in particular.

In addition, one of the most serious obstacles to achieving Smart Growth is current zoning and the anachronistic assumptions on which it is based – that low densities are necessary to avoid congestion and separating uses is necessary for environmental quality.

PlanSmart NJ Position

Over the years, PlanSmart NJ has focused attention on reforming three areas of governance policy that create major obstacles to achieving Smart Growth in New Jersey: fragmentation of decision-making, the municipal “ratables chase,” and the ability and desire to change local zoning.

Planning, regulating and spending decisions must be coordinated and mutually supportive. These decisions must be based on integrated state, county and local plans that reflect the capacity of infrastructure and natural resources and reflect political decisions about where to influence that capacity, either by investing in expansion or in conservation.

Regional planning has a special role to play in this coordination and integration. It can bridge the gap between broad statewide plans, programs and investment decisions and local land use decisions. It is only by understanding regional systems – the economy, transportation and watersheds – that local planning decisions can be evaluated as to whether or not they achieve Smart Growth goals.

To reduce the dependence of local governments on the property tax, regional tax sharing, an increase in the income tax or other new policies should be implemented. Such changes would liberate towns from approving or disapproving development for fiscal reasons and allow them to plan the community.

Changes in zoning are essential for achieving Smart Growth. Development must be severely restricted in rural and environmentally sensitive areas and increased in growth areas – enough to support increases in housing and transportation choices and provide an appropriate jobs to housing balance.

Current Projects

As Chairman of the Fiscal Policy Committee of the statewide Coalition for Affordable Housing and Environment, PlanSmart NJ President Dianne Brake is actively constructing a property tax reform agenda. The intent is to reduce local governments’ reliance on locally-raised funds to cover expensive infrastructure such as schools, roads sewer plants. Two seminars have been held in the last year, bringing together academics, fiscal experts planning advocates and Legislators and more are planned.

PlanSmart NJ has created a framework to transform zoning, from its current categories based on single uses and low density to categories based on the State Development and Redevelopment Plan and Smart Growth principles. We call this Goal Oriented Zoning, and we have developed a computer model, called GOZ®, which calculates the impact of build-out under Goal Oriented Zoning compared to traditional zoning. We are also promoting legislation that will allow a regional density transfer program that allows payments to owners of farmland, undeveloped or environmentally sensitive land for development that is transferred to more appropriate “receiving zones.”

In addition, PlanSmart NJ has created a proposal for new legislation that promotes regional action plans, or RAPs. This proposal encourages agreements among state agencies, counties, and local governments. It is based on a process in which the group sets goals, reviews facts, makes policy choices and checks the outcomes of these choices in comparison to the goals.

Past Achievements

Since being established in 1968, PlanSmart NJ’s achievements in the area of governance have included:

  • Advocating for the Farmland Preservation Act, Fair Housing Act, State Planning Act, Highway Access Management Act and the Transportation Development District Act,
  • Promoting model local ordinances for stream corridor protection, transportation improvement districts, and affordable housing, etc.,
  • As Chairman of the Land Use, Infrastructure and Environment (LUIE) Project, Ms. Brake was influential in shaping statewide recommendations that would ensure public plans, regulations, investments are coordinated and streamlined in such a way as to implement the State Plan’s goals.

 

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