Urban sprawl is prevailing over N.J. plan; Big office development making itself felt in rural parts of state


HOPEWELL, N.J. -- Leslie Kramer and her husband moved into a big Victorian house in this rural township to get away from congestion in Westchester County, N.Y. Carol Ferry and her husband moved here from Hamilton Township, on the other side of Trenton, for the same reason.

So have hundreds of their neighbors who thought that here, at last, they would be safe from sprawl.

After all, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman had said that she would make New Jersey a national model for controlling growth in ways that would protect open space and direct growth back to urban areas.

But like forest creatures that are too slow to outrun a wildfire, the Kramers and the Ferrys have found that the crowded old neighborhoods they tried to flee are on their way to them, led by a giant new development that could produce more office space than a tower of the World Trade Center. And when new census figures showed formerly rural parts of New Jersey growing faster than any place in the region, it was a reminder that stopping sprawl and talking about it are two very different things.

'You can't stop it'

"I'll tell you what I believe -- you can't stop it," said Kramer, the leader of a failed effort to stop Merrill Lynch from building a project that will start at 3.5 million square feet and could grow to 5.5 million in an old cornfield here.

"My husband hit me over the head with that fact all along, and I didn't believe him. I kept saying, 'No, this is so wrong on so many levels -- look what it's doing to our community, look how it violates the state plan, look how it goes against everything the governor said she was going to do!' But you know, he was right. You can't stop it, not if the people with the money want it," Kramer said.

If anything, the existence of anti-sprawl measures like New Jersey's state plan and the governor's fervent calls for protecting open space may only deepen residents' sense of betrayal when a project like the one being built by Merrill Lynch here starts rising in a neck of the state that looks more like Vermont than New Jersey.

The Hopewell project also demonstrates how money and jobs -- in this case the company's threat to move 3,500 jobs to Pennsylvania -- can trump public land preservation policy.

So whether it is the project here, or the 1 million square feet of laboratories that AT&T; recently opened in Middletown, Monmouth County, or the plans to develop 2,000 acres of woods near Stewart Airport in Orange County, N.Y., sprawl continues to march across the region.

Pledges come too late

In her 1998 inaugural address, Whitman announced a $1 billion open space preservation bond act, to buy 1 million acres of open land, and declared, "We must do more to encourage intelligent, responsible growth for New Jersey's future, especially in our cities." The bond act was passed by the voters by a wide margin.

But such pledges to stem sprawl have come too late for residents here, who failed to follow the local planning process until it was too late, said Samuel H. Hamill, Jr. a former local planning board president and now senior consultant to New Jersey Future, a growth management think tank. That aloofness from the nitty-gritty of planning issues, he said, is now ending.

"Not only did the governor's bond act pass, but there were any number of local elections that turned on these very questions." Hamill said.

Merrill Lynch had one big factor going in its favor: the land it chose was zoned for a big project like the one it wanted to develop, however incongruous it might seem to someone driving slowly by on the rural lane that bordered the site.

But if the state had any misgivings, they were erased when Merrill Lynch made plain that it was going to be Hopewell or another state, probably an equally rustic corner of Pennsylvania.

Whitman, concerned with the company's threat to pull 3,500 or more jobs from the state, gave the project political and financial support.

The state applied for and got $38.5 million in federal money to rebuild the interchange at Interstate 95 and Scotch Road, where the Merrill Lynch project is being built, and it has agreed to help the company avoid $13.5 million in sales taxes.

In addition, the state said it would give the company $6.4 million to create at least 1,100 new jobs at the site, which will eventually employ 3,500. Finally, Merrill Lynch, the country's largest brokerage house, will get $135 million in grants for job creation at Hopewell and at its 10 other New Jersey sites.

Plan adopted in 1992

The state plan, adopted in 1992 as guidelines for directing growth to areas with transportation access and to built-up areas, is often invoked by preservationists for its goal that the state should use its power to push some new development toward the state's hollowed-out cities. But the plan's guidelines are advisory, not mandatory and subject to economic and political pressures.

The Merrill Lynch site is designated for growth under the state plan as an area with public space such as retail and housing. Critics point out, however, that there is no public component in the 3.5 million square foot first phase.

The site is designated as a growth area under the state plan, because it is adjacent to an interstate highway.

Building deep in the country makes perfect sense from the company's perspective, said Hamill, even though the state might have wished that the project had gone to a city like Trenton, which has acres of unused industrial space, and which is only a few miles from Hopewell.

"The cities in general, and Trenton is no exception, are much less certain than the suburbs as planning environments," Hamill said. "Things don't happen as quickly in the cities, buildings inspections aren't on time and policy plans are much more vague, so anyone going there has this uncertainty in the approval process."

'Here or Pennsylvania'

When Merrill Lynch told the state that it would build in Hopewell or leave New Jersey, state officials gingerly raised the idea of building in Trenton.

"Merrill Lynch officials said very clearly that they would not look at Trenton," said Tom Dalessio, an assistant in the governor's policy office. "They wanted a suburban-style campus, so it was either here or Pennsylvania."

In Hopewell, Merrill Lynch found 450 acres of farmland that had been owned, with development in mind, by Bristol Myers Squibb, the pharmaceutical concern, since 1955.

It also found a five-member, all-Republican town board with strong land-owner sympathies that welcomed the prospect of millions of dollars in new taxes for sewers and schools. It did not hurt that the company also bought 440 additional acres across the road from William E. Schluter, an influential state senator who sits on the Economic Growth, Agriculture and Tourism committee.

Surprise to anger to despair

Merrill Lynch has final approval to build 1.3 million square feet of office space on the land, and has preliminary approval to build 2.2 million more at the site.

The adjacent 440 acres is zoned for 2 million square feet of commercial development, for a total of 5.5 million square feet potential -- and probable -- construction on both sides of the road. One World Trade Center tower contains 4 million square feet.

Local reaction followed the now familiar arc from surprise to anger to despair. An anti-growth coalition swept the Republicans on the town board and replaced them with a 4-to-1 Democratic majority that succeeded in stopping Merrill Lynch's preferred sewer option -- it has others -- but could not block the development.

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