New Jersey's growth is across its waistline

WEST WINDSOR, N.J. — WEST WINDSOR, N.J. - If New Jersey residents had any illusions that the 2000 census might ease their state's reputation as an ever-growing tangle of vinyl-sided mansions, discount superstores and free parking, they were surely disappointed by figures that showed the continued triumph of suburbanization over urban revitalization.

Certainly a handful of cities within New York's orbit logged respectable population gains, but most of the 578,176 people who have arrived in the state since 1990 headed straight for the pastoral beauty that can still be glimpsed in places like this rapidly growing suburb of Princeton.


Lured by low crime, big new houses and proud schools, affluent baby boomers raced to New Jersey's new frontier, the so-called wealth belt that stretches across the state's waistline. Over the years, Warren Jones, 71, has watched and winced as look-alike subdivisions spread across West Windsor's wheat fields and orchards, doubling the township's population to 21,907 in 15 years.

'It's a disgrace'


"It's a disgrace what's happened to the land," said Jones, a retired banker who moved here in the early 1960s. "The young folks think they're getting away from regular suburbia. But the more of them that come, the more it's going to look like the other suburbs."

Such anguished cries can be heard all across the Garden State, which has been losing 18,000 acres of greenery a year to commercial and residential development, according to state planning officials. But despite the public hand-wringing and endless talk about smart growth, New Jersey cannot seem to stop itself from gobbling up the woodlands and fields that once dominated a bucolic landscape stretching from western Bergen County to southern Cape May County.

Although an increasing number of municipalities are trying to slow the juggernaut by acquiring open space and requiring large lots for construction, local officials are still obsessed with the never-ending pursuit of development that they hope will offset the property-tax increases caused largely by earlier residential growth.

In recent years, West Windsor, for one, voted to pay for an ambitious farm preservation program. But the township also granted permits for 2 million square feet of office space and housing that is expected to draw more than 3,000 new residents. "Nobody wants a community that doesn't grow," said the mayor, Carole Carson. "If a town doesn't grow, it dies."

With its robust economy and booming population, New Jersey is not about to die. Although old industrial cities such as Camden, Trenton and Newark are still struggling, and many rural hamlets in the southernmost counties lost population, the 1990s were remarkably good to New Jersey.

Most densely populated

The state, the most densely populated in the nation, with the highest median income, has been creating about 73,000 jobs a year since 1996, nearly three-fourths of them in the wealth belt, a six-county region that is host to corporate behemoths, including AT&T;, Johnson & Johnson and Aventis.

But environmentalists and planning experts say that prosperity came at a price. "The census shows that New Jersey is entering a land-use crisis," said Jeff Tittel, director of the state's Sierra Club chapter. Overdevelopment is contaminating public water supplies and increasing the frequency of catastrophic floods, he said. Wildlife is struggling to survive on fragmented patches of forest, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers half of the state's rivers and streams to be polluted. New Jersey ranks 49th among the states in air quality.


Traffic jams snake through even the most countrified settings, and commuters here spend more time driving than those of any other state in the country. Sprawl, the rallying cry, has roused the concern of the state's most free-market-oriented Republicans and even a few developers.

"All this uncontrolled growth is really short-sighted," said Steve Pozycki, chairman of SJP Properties, the state's biggest builder of office space. "Wouldn't it be nice to keep a little green belt before it all gets paved over?"

The problem is that the state's political leaders do not seem to be ready to do the heavy lifting that would wrest zoning decisions from the state's 566 towns. The state Development and Redevelopment Plan, a painstaking guide for growth, calls for steering development into cities, existing suburbs and rural New Jersey's designated town centers. Adopted in 1992 and revised last month by the State Planning Commission, it remains a well-meaning set of suggestions.

'The plan is a joke'

"The plan is a joke," said Tittel of the Sierra Club. "The State Planning Commission is like the dance band on the Titanic."

The gubernatorial candidates, acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco and Bret D. Schundler, both Republicans, and James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, are unlikely to turn New Jersey into another Oregon, a state that dictates strict development rules for every municipality.


While all three support reining in sprawl and encouraging the redevelopment of urban areas, they stop short of calling for the kinds of restrictions on rural development that environmentalists have been urging.

The land-use lawyer for the New Jersey League of Municipalities, Stuart Koenig, said local governments feared that a mandatory plan would lead to unreasonable costs. "I don't think there's anyone who views sprawl as a positive thing," he said. "But how much are people willing to back it up with their wallet? That remains unknown."

Ask New Jersey residents, and their responses are full of conflict.

'No town spirit'

Frank Moramarco, 43, a postal worker, said he disliked the soulless tracts of housing that overtook his town, Hillsborough. "There's nothing to do here, no town center, no town spirit," he said as he made his rounds through a development called Crestmont Manor. But asked if he favored a building moratorium, Moramarco shrugged. "I guess it's not really fair to say, 'Now that I'm here, no one else should come in,'" he said.

The construction industry agrees, saying that so-called smart growth does not appeal to home buyers. "People say they don't like sprawl, but by and large, they want a suburban lifestyle," said Joanne Harkins, a land-use expert for the New Jersey Builders Association. "There are certain times when people prefer urban living, but the vast majority of citizens prefer a detached single-family house on a lot of their own. That's what we build because that's what people want."


Builders and environmentalists agree that New Jersey's municipalities will continue to court development as long as the state's property-tax system remains the primary source for financing schools and services. In New Jersey, 98 percent of local revenue comes from property taxes, compared with the national average of 75 percent. The pursuit of tax revenue is driving sprawl, said Susan Burrows, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Future, an organization that promotes more controlled growth. "We have to make a change."

Of course just about every candidate for governor in recent years has promised to reform the state's tax system. But after a new governor takes office, the political obstacles to change have proved insurmountable.

With 900,000 newcomers projected by state planners in the next 20 years, cynics say New Jersey can expect more of the same. But others, such as James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, see change in the wind.

Demographics, he said, may ultimately do the work for opponents of sprawl. The affluent generation that fed New Jersey's home-building bonanza in the 1980s and 1990s will one day become empty-nesters, he said. Those in the leading edge of that great population bulge, he pointed out, are starting to reach their mid-50s. "Once they find themselves rattling around in their McMansions with time on their hands, they're going to make different housing choices," he said.