Rutgers Study Shows Land Use and Environmental Impacts in NJ
A study released by Rutgers and Rowan universities last week found that New Jersey has been using less land for new development compared to 20 years ago. According to the report, an average of 16,852 acres a year was developed for housing or commerce in the late 1990s compared to 3,464 acres a year between 2012 and 2015.
“This report shows that New Jersey has been moving in the right direction when it comes to sprawl and overdevelopment. This is thanks to environmental groups and the policies they have been pushing to limit sprawl. We have been pushing to protect environmentally sensitive lands for decades through regulations like C1 streams and 300-foot buffers, preservation areas like the Highlands and Pinelands, open space preservation funds, and keeping sewers out of environmentally sensitive areas,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Back in the 1990s before the Highlands Act, we could see the sprawl line move a couple of miles out every few years. This was based on water quality analysis and increased water pollution. This report shows that land-use regulations have slowed that considerably. Our concern with COVID is that there will be a new push for development in rural and environmentally sensitive areas which will undo many of the gains we have made over the years.”
The report found that the more urbanized counties in New Jersey are already nearing buildout with “little remaining undeveloped available land for further urban expansion.” Counties like Passaic, Cape May, Camden, and Morris are also nearing buildout because of watershed and open space protections, as well as the Pinelands and Highlands management systems. According to the report, “NJLULCC data indicates that the patterns of development that have occurred throughout the Garden State have been significantly influenced by New Jersey’s regional planning systems.”
“We have been able to slow the sprawl in New Jersey because of regulatory and legislative action, planning, and open space funding. Regional planning and land-use regulations have worked to protect our environment, open space, water quality, and air quality. This is critical because overdevelopment and loss of open space hurts our environment,” said Tittel. “Sprawl has also slowed in New Jersey because we have been reinvesting in our cities through infrastructure projects like the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and the Newark Light Rail. These projects have helped turn the trend of overdevelopment and sprawl around.”
During his time in office, Governor Christie rolled back protections for the environment, threatened clean water and open space, and increased New Jersey’s impact on climate change. Christie weakened the Flood Hazard rules, wetland protections, water quality planning, and stream encroachment rules.
“We are facing major challenges when it comes to land use in New Jersey because the progress we’ve made is under threat. This is partially because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the bigger problem is Christie’s rollbacks are still in place. He opened up 200,000 acres of environmentally-sensitive lands, wetlands, and endangered species, statewide, including about 23,000 acres in Ocean County. He also rolled back Flood Hazard Rules, weakened the Highlands Act, and rolled back the 300 foot buffers,” said Jeff Tittel. “Christie also completely got rid of the Council on Affordable Housing, and Governor Murphy won’t do anything to fix our affordable housing issues. This puts more pressure on towns to use environmentally sensitive areas to meet their affordable housing needs.”
NJ is one of the most vulnerable states in the nation to impacts from sea level rise and climate change. Planning for resiliency is a start in the right direction, however DEP can’t do it all. The legislature need to step in and close CAFRA loopholes, provide funding for Blue Acres, update environmental legislation to include climate impacts, and create a Coastal Commission.
“It is not enough to get rid of Christie’s rollbacks. New Jersey needs to move forward to deal with climate change when it comes to land use, environmentally-sensitive areas, flood-prone properties, and the protection of open space. DEP needs to update rules and regulations to deal with climate impacts, sea-level rise, more frequent storm surges, and flooding. They need a holistic approach that includes designating areas for preservation, buyouts, and mitigation. We must update our adaptation for sea level mitigation programs, our shore protection plan, fix CAFRA loopholes and have a Coastal Commission,” said Jeff Tittel.
The New Jersey Sierra Club has submitted multiple comments on the NJ Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJPACT) process. In our comments, we noted that it is important to take loss of land use and land cover into account because of loss of carbon sequestration as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
“DEP also needs to put carbon impacts into land use regulations. It’s not just cutting down a forest or paving over farmland, but the additional housing and other development in these areas. New developments in these areas will mean more shopping centers, houses, cars and more greenhouse gas impacts. Without taking this into consideration, we will get nowhere. We need to tie land use decisions and regulations to carbon impacts. Otherwise our climate impacts will only continue to get worse. DEP should not allow development in areas that are supposed to be for mitigation like carbon sinks in the Highlands and Pinelands,” said Tittel. “DEP needs to look at land-use permits for not just regulating stormwater runoff or wetlands, but also carbon impacts from overdevelopment.”
The NJ Department of Environmental Protection formally adopted amendments to Stormwater Management rules, N.J.A.C. 7:8, Green Infrastructure in March 2020. This was a green cover rule that will cause more flooding and pollution in our waterways.
“The current administration has failed to protect environmentally sensitive areas and open space. As a result of this, we are seeing more and more overdevelopment and sprawl projects in environmentally sensitive areas across the state like Jackson and East Brunswick. In Lakewood, they have approved a monster development for close to 1,100 units. This Eagle Ridge Development will pave over important forests and wildlife habitat in the Pinelands. A 174-home residential development has been proposed for the Royce Brook Golf Course in Hillsborough and a 333-unit housing development along the Musconetcong River in Hampton is moving forward,” said Tittel. “This is even more concerning because we are seeing a push for development in rural and environmentally-sensitive areas due to the coronavirus.”
The Murphy Administration has said that they will look at climate change when it comes to land use or other permitting processes, but they haven’t. The administration has failed to reverse or strengthen Christie-era rules like the Flood Hazard Rules, Waiver Rules, Stormwater Rules, and Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) rules that encourage development and cause more flooding and pollution.
“We need to make sure that our development trends don’t go in the wrong direction because of the administration’s failure to act. New Jersey needs to move forward to protect our environmentally sensitive areas because we may see more development as people move out of cities during the coronavirus pandemic. The impact from overdevelopment is not just the loss of open space and more flooding, pollution, and stormwater runoff. It also has major carbon impacts. We need to make sure that towns and counties across the state are protecting open space from sprawl and overdevelopment,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Preserving open space and stopping overdevelopment can help protect New Jersey from more pollution, more flooding, and spending tax dollars on building schools, roads, and infrastructure.”