PA and NJ are taking very different approaches to controlling urban sprawl. The public demand to control sprawl is clearly tied to increasing congested roadways. However, the U.S. government does not have the same powers as do foreign governments, and, landowners have to be compensated if land is devalued as a result of government action. The state’s abilities to actually control growth are, therefore, indirect. Here is an overview of what each state is trying to do:

  • New Jersey proposes a “watershed” approach to limit future growth by controlling sewer and runoff discharges. In turn there is a belief this will control sewer connections and building permits. The state proposes to control most growth to areas with reasonably expandable or already permitted sewer discharge capacity. NJ also has an extensive “Green Acres” program to buy development rights and preserve certain land. NJ has a moderate to high population growth rate, except in the southwestern NJ area.

  • PA has passed legislation to give municipalities more planning and zoning regulatory power. Municipalities are also allowed to assess more fees and require developers to address offsite traffic issues. Municipalities are also allowed to work together to zone uses so that all municipalities do not have to have zones for all uses. PA has started a grant program for certain land preservation. Among the 50 states, PA’s population growth rate is low to moderate, with the highest growth near a few large cities.

The key issue causing the current need for state governments to “do something” is rooted in decade old decisions at the federal and state levels to:

  • Subsidize transportation unequally.
  • No longer build transportation systems to meet traffic demand.
  • Subsidize and promote suburban commercial and housing growth.

Although it was thought, for about a decade, that environmental laws could be used to get people out of cars, such efforts were abandoned as too unworkable and too politically controversial. Even “car pool only” laws on I-80 in northern New Jersey had to be abandoned after the public demanded the ability for all to use the lanes because they paid for them.

Both State’s efforts to control growth indirectly will not likely meet with success. Direct approaches, by contrast, involving by buying development rights or the land itself, is the only methods likely to meet with success. Meanwhile, government should decide what it is going to do to move people more efficiently between work and home, and, by train or plane. As there is no population control planned in the U.S., the states and federal government need to face reality - clogged roads and airports with long flight delays are going to mean more demands to “do something”, and indirect measures to control growth will do little to solve fundamental transportation capacity problems.

Government is really responsible for managing growth, and having adequate infrastructure for the current and future population. We think that population growth is a reality that government really needs to better address because indirect measures to control future growth do little to make current problems to go away. In this time of economic growth in the us, we should be focusing on more environmentally sound projects to make our infrastructures work better, and not unrealistically hope that localized growth problems near major cities are can be controlled so the “problems” will go away. We think using this approach, the problems will get worse.

- Gary Brown