Opinion: How state zoning rules foster sprawl, hike costs

Originally posted on Northjersey.com on Sunday, July 31, 2011

Opinion from Smart Growth America’s Coalition Member, New Jersey Future. Written by Tim Evans, Research Director of New Jersey Future. 

ON A regular basis we hear how sprawl development continues to eat up the last remaining open spaces across New Jersey, and residents continue to express confusion about how this keeps happening.

One look at local zoning ordinances, though, and it becomes obvious that municipalities are getting exactly what they are asking for – a steady procession of large-lot subdivisions that gobble up land, increase infrastructure costs and push housing out of the reach of more and more people.

A new study by Rowan University’s Geospatial Research Laboratory documents the cumulative effect of these local zoning decisions: a land-use pattern that has grown substantially more exclusionary and sprawling over the last two decades.

The study, titled “Evidence of Persistent Exclusionary Effects of Land Use Policy within Historic and Projected Development Patterns in New Jersey,” also concluded that the preponderance of zoning in place today that favors large residential lots puts New Jersey on track to a future of further sprawl and housing segregation.

Municipal enthusiasm for large-lot development is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to 1986, residential development on lots of half an acre or larger accounted for 43 percent of total acres in residential use statewide.

For the 1986-2007 study period, however, the share of newly developed residential land consumed by housing on large lots jumped to 67 percent. This trend toward larger lots is the main reason that growth in developed acres continues to outpace population growth, even as redevelopment (i.e., the reuse of previously developed land) becomes more common.

How has this happened?

Given that New Jersey is already the most developed state in the nation, why is it consigning its remaining undeveloped lands to spread-out development at such a rapid pace?

Sum of many decisions

The answer is that what’s not optimal for the state as a whole is, unfortunately, the sum of many individual decisions that are optimal, from a fiscal standpoint, at the local level.

Towns shy away from residential development that might attract schoolchildren because such development costs more in services demanded than it generates in property taxes. Each town thus has an incentive to minimize the number of homes (and hence the number of new school kids) that can be accommodated on any given parcel of land. The result: large-lot zoning.

In turn, homebuilders respond to the restrictions on the number of units they can build in a development by trying to maximize the per-unit profit – in other words, by constructing fewer but bigger and more expensive homes.

This has the effect of pricing out households of more modest financial means from huge swaths of the state; hence, the Rowan study’s use of the term “exclusionary zoning.”

These fiscally pragmatic decisions on the part of local governments and homebuilders add up to a scenario that runs directly counter to the growth pattern envisioned by New Jersey’s State Development and Redevelopment Plan.

The State Plan calls for new population and employment growth to be encouraged in locations where roads, water, sewer and public amenities are either already in place or can most easily be provided.

It also calls for a return to more compact, walkable neighborhoods and downtowns that provide a range of housing choices and that put home, work, shopping and other destinations closer together, reducing the need to travel.

The Rowan report found that the majority of land developed for residential uses over the study period occurred outside of the “smart growth areas” that the State Plan indicates as being most appropriate for development. What’s more, “Large-lot development is widespread even within smart growth areas,” accounting for 40 percent of the newly developed acres there.

One bright spot in the Rowan study is the finding that commercial and industrial development, unlike residential development, has followed the prescription of the State Plan to a significant extent. A much higher share of total acres of job-related land development – 80 percent over the 1986-2007 study period – took place in “smart growth areas” than was true of residential development (only 48 percent).

Longer commutes

However, this silver lining comes with a touch of gray – the resulting mismatch between centrally located jobs and more far-flung residences means longer commutes, more traffic, more greenhouse gas emissions and less community engagement among commuting workers.

Where do we go from here?

It’s clear that the land-use system currently in place will continue to generate the same results if left unaltered. The State Plan was created to coordinate growth and preservation investments and activities more efficiently, and while to date it has been a valuable guide, it has not had the implementation incentives necessary to change local land-use decision-making.

The Christie administration is working on a State Strategic Plan that will complement the State Plan by articulating simple goals and criteria for growth and by aligning state investments and rule-making in support of these goals.

This is a good first step.

In the meantime, towns can revisit their master plans and employ tools designed to curb the large-lot development problem.

Cluster ordinances

For example, Chesterfield adopted a transfer-of-development-rights ordinance and Hillsborough instituted cluster ordinances. Both techniques have been able to reconfigure housing development that was originally zoned on large lots into “clusters” with a smaller footprint, reducing infrastructure costs and increasing the amount of contiguous open space.

Towns such as Morristown and Newton are actively encouraging downtown redevelopment, directing new growth to already-developed areas, thereby relieving pressure to build on outlying open spaces.

Ultimately, the state, counties and each municipality will need to line up behind a plan for where and how they will grow that does not rely on perpetuating large-lot sprawl development.

We will also need to address the issue of how the current property-tax system skews local growth and development decisions – but we’ll save that for another time.