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Smart Growth Means Local Control Of Municipal Destiny

When people ask me what’s happening with “fast-track,” I smile and say, “You mean,‘Smart Growth,'” and then I say, “We’re getting there.” I just hope we get there ahead of the next new traffic jam or before another strip mall rises in some corn field that was meant to be preserved.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been attacked for sponsoring the Smart Growth law, a statute crafted to fight sprawl by encouraging growth where it’s wanted locally. It’s been held up by politics, some legitimate and some asinine.

As an ironworker by trade, I can handle heat and I can take a punch or two for a cause I believe in. What bothers me is when I have to spend time swatting away cheap shots like mosquitoes on a bad summer night.

At first, critics claimed Smart Growth was a sinister State bid to usurp local planning decisions. To prove they were dead wrong, we got a nonpartisan State legal opinion to back up our position that nothing in the Smart Growth statute can pre-empt local choices for zoning and planning.

Later, Smart Growth was put on hold for fine tuning and then it was held off again through the upcoming election. I don’t like the delay, but I can put up with that kind of politics for the greater good. But I am still coming out of my corner now with the improvements I promised to the initial law, as contained in my new bill, S-2761.

My goal, despite the refusal of no-growth disciples to ever come to the table to discuss facts and resolve differences, is to communicate with sensible local planners, developers, concerned citizens and public officials about my revisions to eliminate misunderstandings and move ahead in the war against sprawl.

A lot of people will like what they see in the new bill – like the part where a town can decide it doesn’t like a certain Smart Growth area and have a whole year to remove it from the local master plan.

The new bill also specifically exempts both the Highlands and the Pinelands from getting expedited permits. Plus, expedited permits won’t be issued for any permits required under State laws involving pesticides, industrial sites, toxic catastrophes, solid waste utility controls, brownfields contamination, site remediation or flood hazards. And, nothing could be advanced to jeopardize the receipt of federal funds.

In hindsight, supporters of Smart Growth probably could’ve avoided a lot of aggravation by taking more time to explain some of the initial law’s technical review procedures. It could’ve blown away the false claims that the whole program was a giant rush job. But, in looking ahead, the new bill requires even morepublic exposure with the posting of permit applications in a State bulletin and on a State web site.

And as for getting a final decision on a permit, we’ve got another State legal opinion saying it’s perfectly okay to let an administrative law judge say “yes” or “no” and that’s it because the playing rules will be known by all from the start.

I’ve been around politics long enough to know that you don’t need a side issue distracting people when they are supposed to be focusing on a statewide election like picking a new Governor. So, like I said, I can handle the current moratorium.

But I do resent the attempts made to scare people away from the common sense of Smart Growth by those who claimed it was a plot to pave virgin forests or to gobble up farmland.

There’s a collective responsibility at stake here and it shouldn’t be ignored. There’s a lot of agreement that sprawl is our common enemy. If left unchecked, it will leave our children and their children with a real mess of what’s left of our finite resources.

The Smart Growth statute is a blueprint for controlling sprawl and channeling growth where we need it. It should be the tool we use to fix a plan for our future. We can discuss and fine tune, but ultimately we have to act. Doing nothing would be the choice of fools.

Senator Sweeney is a Democrat who represents the 3rd Legislative District which includes parts of Cumberland and Gloucester Counties and all of Salem County.