They have announced plans to lay off most of the county’s planning board staff — a potentially disastrous move for municipalities in light of the New Jersey State Plan.
(You can help stop the freeholders from exposing Hunterdon County to sprawl. Check the petition 500 county residents have already signed.)
Planning Board: Our wall against sprawl
A significant part of the planning board’s role has been working with municipalities to protect our status in the New Jersey State Development & Redevelopment Plan. Cutting the staff leaves our towns exposed and unprotected from special interests at the state level that have been working hard for decades to pave over Hunterdon County and to turn the Interstate 78 corridor into malls and high-density housing developments.
What is the State Plan?
In ten years, you’ll look around and ask, “What happened to Hunterdon County? How did it turn into Union County?”
The answer will be, “The State Plan.”
The State Plan is a highly political map that defines where future development will go. For many years, Hunterdon was slated for massive development, until a group of towns calling itself The 7 Town Group went head to head with state officials — and got our designation changed from Planning Area 2 to Planning Area 5. PA-5 protects farms, water quality, forests, wildlife and what we commonly refer to as our quality of life.
Planning Board supports towns against political pressure from Trenton
The county planning board, under the leadership of director Sue Dziamara, worked closely with our municipalities to protect our PA-2 designation — to stop sprawl before it started. Her team did the hard work to enable us to push back the special interests that wanted Hunterdon zoned for asphalt and concrete.
Today, state officials have rolled us back to PA-2. The door is open to sprawl once again, and without the support of the county planning board, our towns haven’t got the techical support to fight it.
Hunterdon County and all the municipalities within it are under attack from the same special interests we’ve faced for decades. Gutting the county planning board is the worst move the freeholders could make, in the interest of getting re-elected for being “the biggest tax cutters of all.”
Historic and environmental issues are the least of the reasons to keep a strong planning department. State rules make it difficult for towns to protect their zoning and status under the NJ State Plan. The county planning board has been a strong advocate for protecting Hunterdon County in the State Plan.
The department that fights COAH
When Hunterdon towns banded together to fight unfair rules from the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), it was the county planning board that stepped up to provide necessary technical support for the effort. The resulting savings from that project alone more than justify the continuing existence of the department. Who else will provide that kind of technical support in the future, when our county and towns are attacked unfairly by state agencies?
Cutting a department that defends us isn’t leadership
The freedholders should stop thinking about re-election and playing politics — and instead calculate the value of defending our county from special interests at the State that are trying to pave over Hunterdon. Sue Dziamara has run a potent planning board that requires staff to continue its work. Sometimes, saving money winds up costing Hunterdon residents immense amounts of money.
If the State Plan sticks us with PA-2 — the designation for high-density, suburban development — then towns will never be able to stop big developers from turning our farms, towns, hills, water sheds and beautiful vistas into wall-to-wall parking lots, malls, and cookie-cutter housing developments.
We don’t hear any of the freeholders talking about the State Plan as a critical issue — and it’s not clear at all that they understand how the county planning board is a critical, strategic player in representing our towns on the State Plan.
It’s gotten tiring watching the freeholders focus loudly on “saving money.” We all want tax dollars saved, too. But the proportion of our county taxes they can save is minuscule — compared to the money we give them to spend on services we want and need.
To take any freeholder candidate seriously in the upcoming November elections, we need to hear how they’re going to spend the bulk of our money — what are the strategic plans for spending our tax dollars to deliver necessary services and to protect our interests?
The county planning board is our weapon against private planners who swamp politicians with “studies” that say we should bend over and take sprawl — as if it’s good for us. The planning board is our technical support for saying NO.
The loud emphasis on “cuts” is getting deafening and misses the more important issue — what’s the plan for spending our money? Getting rid of the county planning board isn’t a strategic move. It’s “junk logic” and false economy.
Politics, Elections, Special Interests, and Campaign $$$
Claiming, “We’re not eliminating the planning board. We’re just cutting it back!” is political b.s. Eliminating most of the staff results in a hobbled operation that is worthless to Hunterdon residents — and the freeholders know it.
Now is the time to look at campaign disclosures. Who’s getting money from special interests in the upcoming freeholder campaign?
A dog with a note in its mouth
Unfortunately, the trend in the upcoming elections is for Republican candidates to behave like dogs with notes in their mouths — “Look! We’re cutting taxes!”
Even the initiative to create a county-wide school district is focusing almost entirely on how much money it would save. The effects on quality of education are barely part of the discussion, because no one wants to be bothered with strategic deails about education or the State Plan.
Leadership is not just about saving money. In fact, that’s just a small part of leadership. It takes smart thinking and strategic planning to justify controlling how county government spend our money!
And voters don’t see it.
Cutting the planning board staff and leaving a shell of an operation is not good for Hunterdon municipalities, residents and taxpayers.
The freeholders owe us an explanation for what this is going to really cost us before they do it — and an explanation about how our planning board benefits us.
The freeholders also need to explain who will benefit from taking our planning board out of the battle against sprawl — and what’s in it for the freeholders’ political campaigns?
Posturing as “the biggest tax cutter of all” for the upcoming election is no justification for irresponsible government — when the outcome is a weakened Hunterdon County.
The real agenda: More development, more sprawl
The underlying agenda becomes clear: The freeholders are removing obstacles to massive development in Hunterdon County in order to boost ratables and generate more tax revenue. While more revenue is good, the massive cost is not.
Hunterdon towns finally learned that you can’t “develop” your way out of high taxes. That is, you can’t lower taxes by permitting lots more development in order to generate more property tax revenue.
That’s known as “The Ratable Chase” because all new development also stimulates higher costs to support it — roads, police, school, and other services. Taxpayers wind up paying for it. Towns learned the hard away that those costs are far bigger than any revenue benefits. Add to that the very real cost of destroying our quality of life, and the choice is simple: Sprawl is not the solution to taxes.
Efforts to undermine Hunterdon County’s defenses against massive development reveal one of two underpinnings: Corrupt government that doesn’t care about our quality of life, or ignorant government that’s more focused on short-term “public relations wins” than long-term tax consequences. Either way, the freeholders are not serving their constituents with this ill-conceived plan to destroy our planning board.
Don’t wake up in five years and ask your neighbors, “What happened to Hunterdon County???”
Call the Hunterdon County Freeholders now at (908) 788-1102 and tell them to STOP SPRAWL. Tell them to keep our planning board strong — DO NOT CUT THE STAFF.
Let our planning board do its job to protect us!
Check out the petition: Don’t wait for someone else to protect your quality of life.