Home > Uncategorized > A Case of Bad Timing – Sprawl Report Sure To Stoke Backlash

A Case of Bad Timing – Sprawl Report Sure To Stoke Backlash

The conventional wisdom – and code words – for today’s page one story “Rowan, Rutgers study says N.J. is running out of open space, renews urban sprawl debate” is that:

the report has renewed the volatile sprawl debates in the state

So we thought we’d give readers a sense of the volatility.

We are much indebted to those brave academics at Rutgers and Rowan. They do fine technical work on land use/land cover and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map depiction of that data. But their sense of timing is less than impeccable.

In fact, over 3 years ago, we released very similar data from Rutgers and Rowan researchers (see below). And for years prior to that, we testified at numerous legislative hearings and DEP regulatory proceedings to inject that work to support stronger land use and water resource protection laws, policies, and regulations.

Those efforts fell on deaf ears in the press, the legislature, and over at DEP.

The academics and planners at places like NJ Future generally were nowhere to be found – unless they were supporting even more growth and undermining DEP environmental, infrastructure (water and sewer) and land use regulations.

We note that the academics were extremely reluctant to discuss their work (one reason why we chose to release it), or educate the public about the implications of their data, or engage the “volatile” policy debate. Of course, that abdication unwittingly undermined our efforts.

So, a significant part of the problem is that those same academics have sat on the sidelines for two decades as the sprawl boom consumed the NJ landscape.

But now, those same academics take a high profile in releasing land use/land cover data – but, as they say, the horse has been galloping out of the barn for years.

Worse, given the economic recession and the policy agenda of the Christie Administration with respect to environmental regulations (i.e. “Red Tape”), DEP (i.e. “a barrier to economic development”), and the Highlands Act (i.e. “needs to be repealed”), that data can only feed the backlash.

And kicking the builders when they are down is only going to help those rollback efforts.

In this context, this report can only lead to attacks on land preservation and environmental regulation as the cause of the collapse of the housing industry.

The KHov spinsmeister already laid down that line in today’s story, i.e. (paraphrasing) “we’ve got plenty of land, it just that too much is preserved. We better stop that and rollback preservation, the Highlands, and land use regulations at DEP to stimulate the market and create jobs”.

This Big Lie issue framing has been building for months – it has tremendous momentum, has been accepted as the dominant narrative by the media, and has gone virtually unchallenged by the disorganized and clueless environmental community.

Hold on to your hats, you are about to experience some of that unspecified “volatility” – see below.

For Immediate Release: April 16, 2007

Contact: Bill Wolfe (609) 397-4861; Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

WHEN IT RAINS…IT FLOODS — New Jersey Continues to Lose War on Sprawl New Figures Show

Trenton — Amidst a backdrop of another day of major statewide flooding, the latest study shows that New Jersey, already the nation’s most densely populated state, continues to lose farmland, forests and open space to development, according to figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This rampant and accelerating loss of land comes despite state officials’ claims that they are “winning the war on sprawl” and the “race for open space.”

Due to the flooding, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection DEP) abruptly cancelled a briefing today on the most recent data on land use/land cover from a Rutgers/Rowan University Study. Based on aerial photographs taken between 1995 and 2002, the study shows New Jersey suffered a rapid rate of urban development and loss of open space:

  • Urban Development Rate. From 1995-2002, urban development spread over another 105,988 acres of New Jersey’s landscape. The annual rate of urban development statewide during that period was 15,140 acres per year. This represents an increase in the rate of development from the 1986 to 1995 period rate of 14,886 acres per year;
  • Loss of Open Space. The majority of open space loss was farmland (55,530 net acres lost); and
  • Hotspots for forest, farmland, and wetlands losses. The study shows a significant increase in the conversion of forest land since the previous period. The major hotspots of upland forest loss (more than 500 acres per year) include the coastal counties of Atlantic, Monmouth and Ocean, where the annual rates of forest loss have all significantly increased (+58%, +82%, and +59%, respectively) and Morris county (north central Jersey) which lost approximately 741 acres per year. Wetlands loss followed a largely similar pattern to the areas of rapid development, with coastal and central counties experiencing the greatest loss.

“This data shows that what we are doing is not working,” stated New Jersey PEER Director, Bill Wolfe, referring to DEP touting the combination of the State Development and Redevelopment Plan, strict environmental regulation, the Highlands Act, and the Green Acres/Farmland Preservation land acquisition programs. “These alarming findings validate the views of my esteemed colleague, Bill Neil, former Audubon Society Conservation Director, who called the State Plan the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the people of New Jersey.”

The continued loss of wetlands, forests and farmlands aggravates the effect of storm surges and storm-related flooding. In addition, it negatively affects watershed protection, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, recreation, and other important values.

DEP has been delaying the adoption of long-promised new regulations to strictly regulate development, protect threatened and endangered species habitat, impose stream buffers, and prohibit extension of water, sewer and septic system infrastructure to all remaining environmentally sensitive lands.

“State officials need to get serious about preserving what’s left of our rapidly vanishing landscape before the bulldozers pave what is left,” Wolfe concluded.


View the Rutgers/Rowan University study data

Look at today’s “by invitation only” DEP data briefing invitation

Read about past DEP failures to enforce regulations

Note delays in adopting coastal protections

Examine PEER comments urging tougher rules for stream buffers

New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.

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  1. July 30th, 2010 at 14:23 | #1

    I referenced the NJ Future blog post, plus the other links in the Atlantic article, in my own post on the Hamilton Master Plan public input site. I share your concern about the predictable pushback from the developer community and their political allies. But I don’t think New Jerseyans will automatically nod like good little robots when the pushback reaches its full pitch.

    Look at the reader comments in response to the Star-Ledger article. Unless they are simply marshaling their forces for a D-Day level assault, the pro-sprawl voices are so far heavily outnumbered by very angry anti-sprawl voices. This may be an issue that has finally begun to resonate with our citizenry.

  2. Patrick Mulligan
    July 30th, 2010 at 21:21 | #2

    It is unclear why Bill Wolf of PEER would find it necessary to attack the study by Rowan and Rutgers about New Jersey’s Changing Landscape, since it basically supports his own ideas. To criticise it on timing is somewhat disengenious, since he obviously is a constant advocate for similar policy change. Does he feel he is the only legitimate voice on the issues? Join the crowd Bill. Many of us have been at this for many years and are just as frustrated as you are. Supporting such studies that states the problem clearly and puts it in a statewide perspective would be much more constructive and effective than your negative critique.

  3. July 31st, 2010 at 05:18 | #3

    Patrick – Thanks, you hit the nail on the head in one sense when you said I am a “constant advocate” – yes, that is true. Constant, consistent, persistent, and aggressive. And that is a key issue here, as many others are not.

    And “advocate” – yes, I appreciate that too, as some do not understand advocacy, or refuse to advocate, finding it unprofessional or not their cup of tea.

    Timing is everything in politics – and not only was the way the report was released bad timing, it was bad framing, and bad messaging, and by the wrong group who has been part of the problem historically.

    But, in perceiving an attack, you miss my point. I did not attack the study. I specifically stated that the Rowan/Rutgers researchers “do fine technical work” for which we are “much indebted”. How much clearer can I be? How is that an attack on the study?

    I stated my purpose right up front, but let me repeat, as you seemed to have missed it:

    “So we thought we’d give readers a sense of the volatility.”

    And the premise behind that rhetorical question is way off base – I really resent the cowardice that poses criticism in the form of a question. While I have strong opinions, anyone that reads this blog or knows of my work can see that one of my primary objectives is to get good information and analysis into the public’s hands so they can form their own opinions, think, and act on that information. This can hardly be criticized as coming from one who “feels he is the only legitimate voice on the issue”. If you’re gonna go down the ad hominem road, at least have the balls to attack and back it up with evidence.

    The fact of the matter is that academics and professional planners have largely NOT engaged in the “volatile” policy debate. And groups like NJ Future and RPA consistently have actively undermined strong environmental planning and regulation. Even on State Plan issues, there has been weak advocacy, at best.

    Those are just historical facts.

    In terms of the State Plan itself, I agree with my colleague Bill Neil, former Director of Conservation at NJ Audubon, who called the Plan (SDRP) “the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the people of NJ”.

    One recent case where the Rutgers/Rowan work was used positively was in the Highlands Act, and , frankly, some if not most of the planners either sat that debate out or were uncomfortable with – if not downright opposed to – the regulatory model in the Act. I can name names. Some planners arrogantly find regulation beneath them and conceptually fatally flawed and a pox on their lofty plans. I did the planning program, I’ve had the debates, and paid the price so I’ve earned the critics mantle. Sorry, if you find that negative. If you understood the role of criticism, you would see that it is highly CONSTRUCTIVE intellectual and policy activity.

    And my name is spelled “W-O-L-F-E”.

    So if your’re gonna come in the Wolfe’s den and shit on the floor, better be prepared for pushback.

  4. July 31st, 2010 at 05:23 | #4

    Rob – thansk for your thoughts.

    I didn’t see the stuff you refer to – can you post a link?

    In terms of resonance, I respectfully disagree.

    We may have the brains, but they got the power, and the money, and the organizing, and the framing and the message.

    Until we can understand strategic issues, we will continue to lose.

  5. July 31st, 2010 at 05:24 | #5

    Patrick – one more point.

    This blog represents my own personal views, not those of PEER.

  1. September 2nd, 2010 at 06:12 | #1
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