The Skylands Is Beautiful ­ What Shall We Do With It?

By Ken Branson

When it comes to planning for Northwest New Jersey's future, everyone seems to agree that as much of the county's open space as possible should be preserved. Everyone seems to agree that there will be some growth, in the county, and that such growth should be "smart growth". But what should we preserve, and for whom? And what sort of development do we want, and where? And what is "smart growth"? For that matter, what does stupid growth look like?

Homerule rules!

David Dech might be forgiven for thinking that all the hard questions about planning swirl above his desk. Dech is Warren County's planning director.

"We live in a home-rule state," Dech says. "So, each town has a right to plan for itself. Each town relies on the property tax very heavily, especially for schools. Towns don't want residential development, because it produces children, and that means schools, and that means higher taxes."

In planning terms, home rule means that a municipality need not comply with its neighbors' wishes when it writes its zoning ordinance, or when it decides to approve development projects.

Towns are required to develop formal master plans, and to re-examine those master plans every six years. Zoning ordinances ­ the local laws about what can be built and where ­ are based on those master plans. The process becomes less focused, but more complicated, as it moves up from the local level.

Counties are not required to have a single master plan, and they have little say over zoning. However, Warren County has not one, but three plans. Its development plan dates from 1979, its transportation plan from 1984. In 1999, the county approved an open space plan. Tthe county is trying to tie its future up in a single vision ­ the Strategic Growth and Transportation Plan. The county has received grants from the Office of Smart Growth (which office takes care of the other kind?) in the state Department of Community Affairs and the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.

On top of that, Gov. James McGreevey has appointed the Highlands Task Force to find ways to protect the state's water supply, half of which lies under Warren County and the other highlands counties. The Task Force's report is now being vigorously debated in public forums. The Governor has made it clear that he wants to stop all development on 100,000 acres of watershed land in the highlands.

Preserving what, and for whom?

For state officials, particularly for the Governor, open space has to be preserved for everyone ­ not just to hike and camp in, not just to look at, but to drink from. Half of New Jersey's people get their drinking water from aquifers under the highlands. Published reports say (at press time) that the Governor's task force recommends preserving between 65,000 and 110,000 acres in the core of the highlands, much of that in Warren County.

But municipal officials in truly rural townships ­ places like Hardwick Township and Knowlton Township ­ want to preserve their towns' rural atmosphere with as little change as possible. Joseph Dunn, Hardwick's mayor, maintains that he and officials like him are not trying to stop growth. "I don't know of any elected official who has said that growth is bad," Dunn says. "We're not talking anti-growth; we're talking managed growth, slow and steady development." Dunn points out that Hardwick ­ which has 1,600 people ­ has averaged 15 new homes a year for the past 20 years.

New Jersey Future, a Trenton-based non-profit group that advocates "smart growth" and "sustainable development", has some common ground with Dunn and his rural colleagues. "Once you've got McMansions, you're stuck with them," says Chris Sturm, the group's project director. "But preserved land, you can always buy." Managed growth sounds good to Sturm.

There are two pots of state money available to help towns preserve land. One, the Green Acres program, is administered by the Department of Community Affairs, and is wildly popular with local officials all over the state. According to Sturm, local governments are loving Green Acres to death. "I think their average grant is about $400,000, and that doesn't go very far," she says.

The Farmland Preservation Program, administered by the Department of Agriculture, has faced less pressure, and so its average grant is larger. Under farmland preservation, the state gives the town money; the town gives the money to farmers; the farmers, in return for the money, agree only to sell their land only to other farmers. There is no public access to land preserved this way (unlike land preserved with Green Acres money, which usually goes to create parks and other public facilities), but the land stays in production and will not be used for residential development.

The authors of the county's evolving strategic plan reportedly will suggest that municipal governments preserve as much land as they can, however they can, and concentrate commercial and residential development in town centers where there's already infrastructure to support it. Rural townships should concentrate development in their villages and hamlets. Dave Dech recently floated this general idea at a meeting of the strategic plan's steering committee, and received something less than a standing ovation.

"On paper, it makes sense, and I understand why Dave proposed it," says Township Committeeman Rene Mathez of Knowlton Township. "The problem is the people in Columbia, or wherever you would put this area, don't want it. They want to be left alone."

Mathez tells a story to illustrate how badly some of his constituents want to be left alone. Not long after he was elected to the township committee, he noticed that people in Columbia had to drive to the township's recreation field if they wanted to let their kids play in a park. He led the effort to purchase land on the Delaware River for a park. If he expected gratitude, he expected wrong.

"To my complete amazement, the people of Columbia called up and said, 'Rene, this is a terrible idea. We don't want a park, because people from (Interstate) 80 will come in, and this will be a place where we'll have to watch our kids, and it'll be a place where rowdy kids will come at night.'" Mathez remembers. "All these objections made sense to me."

Chris Sturm suggests a solution. "In Chesterfield Township, down in Burlington County, they had the same situation," Sturm says. "So, they built a new center, and concentrated development there."

But Sturm's solution underwhelms Hardwick's Mayor Dunn. Unlike Knowlton, Hardwick has no hamlets. In fact, Dunn likes to define Hardwick by what it doesn't have: "We don't have a church," he says. "We don't have a school. We don't have a post office, we don't have a police force, or a fire department. We have a road department, that's it. We contract out for everything else."

But Hardwick does have a center. It's in Blairstown, the tiny urban heart of Blairstown Township, where Dunn and his 1,600 constituents go to worship, eat, learn, shop, and generally get wild.

That's fine with Blairstown, according to Township Committeeman William E. Horsey, who was mayor until January 1. "I don't see a problem with it," Horsey says. "Hardwick hasn't got a center. Neither has Frelinghuysen Township. Blairstown is where the grocery store is, also the feed store and the hardware store."

However, Hackettstown, with more than eight times the population of Blairstown, has a more complicated relationship with its neighboring communities. Its neighbors have approved town home developments and apartment complexes right on its borders. Where Blairstown may be the town center for thinly populated townships, Hackettstown is the center for several fast-growing, affluent towns. A string of "big boxes" has gone up along Route 57 in Mansfield Township, and they both draw traffic through Hackettstown and take business from it.

"I want them to come, to shop here, to be here, and I don't begrudge that they don't pay for the services," says Mayor Roger Hines of his town's neighbors. "I just want them to consider their neighbors a little when they do their planning."

Hines thinks he is close to an agreement with officials in Washington Township, just across the Musconetcong River in Morris County, about building a new connecting road between Route 57 and Route 46. The road would run along the west bank of the river and would make it possible to travel between the two highways without driving a mile up Hackettstown's Mountain Avenue, as hundreds of commuters now do every day. But Washington Township hasn't approved the measure, and the road may be years in the future.

In the meantime, Hackettstown's own "big box", the Hackettstown Mall, is being demolished to make way for a Lowe's. Traffic and traffic lights on Mountain Avenue will be realigned, and more traffic will be pulled up Route 57 and down from Schooley's Mountain to buy nails and fertilizer and lumber.

Getting here, and getting around

Warren County's existing transportation plan (1984) deals mainly with roads. But the Strategic Development and Transportation Plan reportedly addresses the issue in more detail and deals with trains, as well as roads.

"The (present) transportation plan came out just after the Raritan Valley Line from High Bridge to Phillipsburg was closed," Dech says. "We'd like to restore that, also the Lackawanna Cut-off."

The cut-off was built by the Lackawanna Railroad in 1911 to connect Netcong and Port Morris, in Morris County, with other lines at the Delaware Water Gap. The route of the Cut-off runs through Johnsonburg and Blairstown as it cuts across the northern edge of Warren County. The Cut-off carried passengers from Pennsylvania into New York City from 1911 to 1960, and freight for several years after that. But by the 1980s, that traffic had all but ceased, and the cut-off fell into disuse. Rails were removed, and the viaduct that carried trains across the rivers, roads and valleys became the local equivalent of Roman ruins. If the tracks are rebuilt and trains roll across northern Warren County again, some planners think the area's economy will get a boost.

The prospect disturbs Dunn. "I'm very concerned about it," he says. "The solace I find is that it's taking so long (to approve the Cut-off). We all need to wake up and take a look at what our towns would look like. Infrastructure drives development. Connect I-78 with Pennsylvania, finish that bridge, and you almost double the population of Greenwich Township." Dunn is proud of Hardwick's inconvenience ­ its inconvenience as a destination, as a center of anything, as a place to do anything but eat, sleep, breathe fresh air, and raise the odd crop.

The 1 million newcomer march

The United States Bureau of the Census predicts that 1 million new residents will move to New Jersey in the next 10 years. Where will they all go? If you think they're all going into rehabilitated row houses, apartment buildings and town homes in Hudson, Essex and Bergen counties, you're dreaming, as Howard Wolfe sees it. Wolfe is the executive director of the Community Builders' Association, the local branch of the New Jersey Builder's Association.

"I think of New Jersey as a balloon filled with water," Wolfe says. "The balloon already has a lot of water in it. If you put even more water in it, something has to give."

Municipal officials in places like Warren County are being unreasonable in "up-zoning" to keep out "sprawl", he says. What they're really keeping out are working families. "You can't build a 2,000-square-foot house on a 10 acre lot," Wolfe says.

Advocates of "smart growth" contend Warren County can provide some of that housing by building it more densely, in town and village centers.

"I'm perplexed by it," Wolfe says of this aspect of smart growth. "... If the population were going to grow by 100,000 in 10 years, that might work, but 1 million?"

Wolfe says he understands the property tax burden that residential development can bring to a community. His association recently supported legislation to impose "reasonable" education-impact fees on developers. But thinks that routinely keeping families with children away from a community is shortsighted.

"It's a sad commentary when children are a bad thing," Wolfe says. "Think of places that don't grow ­ like Nebraska or North Dakota, as opposed to Arizona or North Carolina, that do. Growth isn't a bad thing. Building schools isn't a bad thing. If you can't have people live where they work, people won't want to be here any more, and the towns will die."

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