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SG-W:/ Article on New Jersey's Smart Growth plan



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This article from Yahoo (posted Thursday) may be of interest to you.
 
 - Mike Sklar

By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY

Empty lots, green and neatly mowed, are scattered among the spanking new houses in the neighborhood Tom Troy is building.

Troy is planning to fill those lots with more $500,000 houses for commuters using the nearby rail line to Philadelphia or New York. But he can't break ground on the 90 empty lots until he pays to preserve one of about 20 farms remaining in Washington Township.

Under a smart-growth program passed in New Jersey in March, builders like Troy can pay to preserve land that towns want to keep open - and in return build housing in areas the town wants to grow.

Proponents see the program as a way to allow growth and at the same time preserve open space - and do it by tapping the deep pockets of developers rather than public money.

That idea looks good to cash-strapped states, especially where housing demand has driven up the price of land. And it appeals to towns that want to focus construction around existing roads, and sewer and water lines.

Fierce competition

In Washington Township, transferring development rights means Troy would get to build on his 90 lots. And a farmer like Paul Keris, on nearby Windsor Farm, would reap the value of his land while still getting to farm it.

Keris and his cousin, Wayne Kalinowsky, used to grow vegetables but now find that kids' hayrides and mums are their most profitable crops. "All farmers would like to be in the preservation (programs)," Keris says, knee-deep in a ditch fixing a broken pipe.

But he also wants a preservation program to pay him the same amount he'd get if a developer turned his farm into a subdivision of 2-acre lots. The last offer from the township to preserve his farm was $1.2 million. A standing offer from a developer would give him $3.5 million for his 55 acres. "All I'd have to do is call him up, and he'd be here," Keris says.

The township has spent $3 million on preservation through existing open-space programs. Currently nearly 3,000 of the township's 13,000 acres are protected. The state reimbursed the township $2 million of that.

"We're in competition with developers. Trying to cut our deals," says Doug Tindall, a township committeeman and farmer. He once grew soybeans on the land where Troy is building and now works to preserve remaining farms.

At least 17 states allow local governments to enact programs to transfer development rights. A few locations such as Montgomery County, Md., have preserved significant amounts of land.

But New Jersey's law goes further and gives the state a strong role in making sure local programs yield results, says Deron Lovaas, a smart-growth specialist with the National Resources Defense Council. Local governments have to show their program has preserved land - or the state will make them rewrite their rules.

The New Jersey plan also sets up a statewide program with $20 million to buy development rights from landowners and then resell them to developers when there is demand. That way, "the farmer doesn't have to wait for the town to set up the (transfer) program," says Susan Bass Levin, commissioner of the state agency that oversees smart growth and land preservation.

In Washington Township, with a population of 10,275 about 12 miles southeast of Trenton, local officials had been waiting for the state law to pass and already had been working on its own program.

"We thought of ourself as a rural township, and we wanted to preserve it," Tindall says.

Township officials long ago figured out where development should go: 230 acres dubbed Washington Town Center, between the hamlet of Robbinsville and an existing housing development.


Planned from the beginning

Troy's company, Sharbell Development, bought 190 acres of the site for $10.8 million and has spent $100 million developing it. Buying development credits was part of the plan from the beginning, Troy says. "Now it's up to me to make the economics work." He wants to pay about $30,000 to fill each of his 90 empty lots.

Overdevelopment has been a hot issue for decades in New Jersey. The state has a high demand for housing and a high level of frustration with sprawl.

The new program means land remains open, developers get to build, and towns are "in the driver's seat about where and how development happens," says Susan Burrows of New Jersey Future, a smart-growth advocacy group that lobbied for the legislation. "Everybody wins."

But these transfer programs are complicated to set up and run, says Peter Furey of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

One reason is that prime open land, like Windsor Farm, is often zoned for large houses on 2-acre lots. But builders who pay to keep that farmland open will use the development rights to build smaller houses on smaller lots.

Those houses sell for less money than a mini-mansion would. So how many smaller houses in a growth area equals one mini-mansion that doesn't get built on farmland? And who is going to decide? Troy, for one, wants to know.

It can also be difficult to designate areas for growth without creating opposition. Washington Town Center was farmland, so there were few neighbors to protest plans for high-density housing. That won't be the case everywhere.

"The theory has always been nice," Furey says. But now, "it's kind of showtime."