PHILADELPHIA - New Jersey, already the most densely populated state, could be on course to reach the outer limits of development as early as the 2030s.
Experts call the situation "built out," meaning that there will be no new land available for construction if trends continue and preservation goals are met.
The absence of available space, in turn, could force developers to look at abandoned properties in cities and inner suburbs, for projects.
The possibility that New Jersey will be the flrst state to reach the limit is based on research comparing its rate of growth with what land is left for legal development.
And the data collected by Rutgers University's Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, at Cook College in New Brunswick, show that the hunger for what is left is eating up the countryside out of proportion to the population growth.
In other words, fewer people are taking up more land, a symptom of the quest for open space away from cities and built-up older suburbs.
Pennsylvania, with vast open spaces in the middle of the state, not only has plenty of room to grow, but does not face the same pressure as New Jersey, which is sandwiched between the urban centers of Philadelphia and New York.
Of New Jersey's 4.98 million acres, about 1.5 million have been developed and as many as 1.59 million are still developable, said John Hasse, a member of the Rutgers team.
18,000 acres a year
At the same time, he said, about 18,000 acres are turned over by property owners for development each year, according to landuse trends from 1986 to 1995.
"At that rate, we'll run out of land in 86.9 years," said Hasse, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on suburban sprawl. "Take out one million acres the governor says she wants to preserve, and we reach build-out in New Jersey in 32.2 years."
The remaining land includes 700,000 acres of farmland, which, Hasse said, accounted for 40 percent of the land developed between 1986 and 1995 in the Garden State.
"Farmland is being rapidly lost "he said.
The team's mapping data and remote sensing work are showing for the first time in the state's history exactly where new development has gone. The hottest areas include Gloucester, Salem and Burlington counties and the perimeter of the Pinelands.
Besides showing what land has been developed, the mapping is designed to help policy makers understand where woodland remains intact and needs to be protected from habitat-destroying fragmentation.
"These are graphical tools that say: 'Wake up. This is what's going to happen unless you change your zoning and your planning,'" said Richard Lathrop, a Rutgers professor and director of the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis.
With the landscape still evolving in the face of competing preservation and development pressures, some municipalities are seeking to block development on their own.
For example, in Evesham, Burlington County, officials have preserved 1,700 acres through state programs. The township also is about to protect 200 acres through a deal allowing developer Iva Samost to build more homes in the Sanctuary, a subdivision in a section of the Pinelands that is a known habitat for the endangered timber rattlesnake. The Pinelands Commission is expected to approve the agreement next month.
"If it were up to me, there wouldn't be any more homes. We'd have the last person already residing here," Evesham Mayor Gus Tamburro said. "I want to preserve land now because I don't trust the profit motive."
Changing laws, plans
He said that as land became more scarce, laws could change, giving developers even more leverage to force communities to allow home construction.
Tamburro said the township's 1991 master plan projected a built-out population of 98,000 people. A later plan reduced the number to 40,000 - Evesham's current population. But that had to be changed to 45,000 last year to accommodate state-mandated low-income housing rules. Under those rules, Evesham must maintain zoning for up to 3,000 affordable homes.
But other communities are being forced to accept development to relieve pressure on the Pinelands, and Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County is perhaps the most dramatic case.
Beginning in the early 1980s, township officials sued the Pinelands Commission because the state agency, which oversees development in the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands preserve, designated the township a growth area and imposed residential zoning on the community.
Egg Harbor eventually was forced to zone for at least 22,000 new homes on 6,000 acres, and the number could grow to 33,000 if developers buy so-called density transfers aimed at protecting other sections of the Pinelands. That translates into 3.7 homes per acre at the low end of the scale and 5.5 at the upper end.
"Why us?" asked Peter Miller, the township manager. "That's far too much housing for one community to absorb. We have 14,000 homes now. Their plan would make us a community of 100,000 people."
About 32,000 people live in the township, and the influx of about 200 new students each year has put pressure on schools for more space and instructors.
"Unfortunately the taxpayer has to bear the brunt," Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough said, noting voters approved a $56 million school-bond issue in the spring.
..It's frustrating as mayor, sitting on the planning board, watching development after development. It's coming too fast, but we have no control."
McCullough said he would like a moratorium on home construction and wants the state to help pay for the added cost of schools, roads and services since a state agency is forcing the population boom on the once-rural community.
But Michael Broek, Pinelands Commission spokesman, said the agency was not happy with the way development had occurred in Egg Harbor. "They have not been building at the density that we wanted them to build at, frankly," he said. "If we didn't have preservation areas, we'd have low-density development all over the New Jersey Pine Barrens."
In low-density development, homes are built on about an acre or more, compared with the traditional quarter-acre found in older suburban developments.
According to data collected by the Rutgers team, development in Burlington, Gloucester and Salem counties has been characterized by low-density construction as well as isolated cul-de-sac subdivisions whose residents rely heavily on their cars.
In 1972, only 5.5 percent of Salem County's 216,000 acres was developed. By 1995, that jumped to 13.5 percent. Gloucester County lost 35,000 acres to development, going from 16.5 percent developed to 32.8 percent. And Burlington County lost 45,000 acres, going from 10.8 percent developed to 19.4 percent.
In the same period, the developed acreage in the state increased by nearly 40 percent, from 889,095 to 1.47 million acres, while the state's population grew about 9 percent from 7.2 million to 7.9 million.
Robert Fishman, an expert on South Jersey growth who taught at Rutgers for 26 years and is now a professor of urban history at the University of Michigan, said that as long as the state and local governments continued to put in the utility lines, sewers and roads needed for new homes, developers would be inclined to build there.
"The real economic threat is continuing low-density development on the outer edge of already developed areas," Fishman said. "The cost of sprawl is water pollution and will sooner or later create a resource crisis.
The question is not whether, but when, developers turn inward toward developed but abandoned properties in cities and inner suburbs such as the Route 130 corridor, Fishman said.
"Right now, development is very loose," he said. "If there's a crisis coming, it's underutilized space in the suburbs. Shopping malls that have been abandoned. Industrial sites no longer used.. . . It makes- so much more sense to use those instead of going to the edge."