By Charles Latini
It wasn’t that long ago that the Meadowlands was a sea of unregulated landfills, filled wetlands, polluted waterways and diminishing wildlife populations. A Wild West of waste management. Fast forward forty-five years and you now see an ecotourism destination – thriving wetlands, serving as habitat for avian species, and a diverse economy of industrial, commercial and residential investment, including MetLife Stadium.
This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of the creation of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, now known as the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, in 1969. It happened because of a commitment to both environmental revitalization and economic development. It happened because of the commission’s authority to control zoning and development from a region-wide perspective, and their adoption of the Meadowlands Master Plan. And it happened because of the tax sharing structure adopted for the region that provided a groundbreaking alternative to the municipal chase for short-term tax ratables, at the expense of long-term planning.
Regional planning and tax sharing are not “sexy” concepts, unless you are a professional planner like me. But they are fundamental to the success story of the Meadowlands. And they have been undermined in recent years – by an administration that has displayed a disturbing disregard for the innovative, landmark land use plans and policies that put New Jersey in the forefront of effective, cooperative regional economic development and environmental restoration over the past 45 years. And by a legislature that jammed through a “reform” bill that was so half-baked, everyone agreed a “clean up” bill was necessary before the governor even signed it.
What started as an effort to address local concerns with the management of the Meadowlands Commission and to re-examine the tax sharing structure has now snowballed into the complete dismantling of the Commission and its core responsibilities, leaving behind a confusing tangle of land use provisions which cause uncertainty for municipalities, developers and other stakeholders. Uncertainty does not help attract economic growth. Nor does it help municipalities as they struggle to update their ordinances and hold on to valuable redevelopment opportunities.
How did we get here? Until five or six years ago, the Meadowlands Commission played a very proactive role in promoting and implementing economic development initiatives to the benefit of the towns and the development community. Since then, the Commission has been out of the economic development business. For an administration whose land use platform has been built around economic development, this has been baffling to observe. The Commission has undermined its own effectiveness by failing to build the necessary cooperative relationships with its municipal partners or with the business community. It has relegated its institutional knowledge – its dedicated, long-serving staff – to the back bench. It has let a master plan, already five years past due for an update, grow stale. This is counterintuitive given the highly competitive nature of commerce in this region.
The Commission is not working because of poor decision-making by this administration and the Commission itself, not because regional planning and tax sharing have run their course. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the details – a responsible step to take for any long-term endeavor. But the new hotel tax that has replaced the tax sharing structure is not an adequate alternative. Nor is the amended power of the Commission, which has been watered-down to the point of having no teeth. Before making changes to the powers and duties of a state agency like the Meadowlands Commission, a responsible step would be to undertake an evaluation of its performance.
The demonstrable successes of the Commission’s work to craft and implement a master plan for the region to restore the polluted waterways and landfill sites to environmental features, and to attract business interest from all over the world – supported by a tax sharing effort that has enabled all 14 municipalities to share in the benefits of the economic development and environmental preservation – cannot be denied. All of these successes happened because of this unique regional plan put in place to manage this unique state resource.
This clean-up bill doesn’t come close to fixing this mess. I urge the members of the Legislature to vote down A4196 and start over.
Charles Latini is president of the American Planning Association’s New Jersey Chapter.