N.J. governor enlists in `war on sprawl'

McGreevey pledges to change state reputation for runaway growth

January 19, 2003|By Andrew Jacobs | Andrew Jacobs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TRENTON, N.J. - It was a raid made for prime time.

In October, a strike force of 70 environmental inspectors descended on Camden, N.J., in search of leaky underground oil tanks, open barrels of toxic goo and renegade smokestacks suspected of fouling one of the state's poorest and most polluted cities.

The State Department of Environmental Protection's weeklong drive hit more than 700 sites, yielding 100 violations, a burst of favorable news coverage and the fury of business leaders, who gave the agency the nickname of the Green Gestapo.

Gov. James E. McGreevey took the appellation as a compliment and soldiered on. In his first year in office, he temporarily halted new home construction in three fast-growing water-starved counties; scrapped an emissions credit trading program beloved by industry; and granted special protection to 15 streams and reservoirs, making new development along their banks all but impossible.

A green guerrilla

But beyond the attention to environmental scofflaws, McGreevey, a Democrat, has pledged to reshape the conventional image of New Jersey as an overpopulated bastion of metastasizing subdivisions, clogged highways and oozing Superfund sites.

Soon after his inauguration last January, the governor formed a Smart Growth Policy Council, which seeks to enlist nearly every state agency in what he calls "the war on sprawl." In his state of the state speech this month, he is expected to make overdevelopment a central theme of his administration.

To be sure, with "smart growth" the current slogan, most Northeastern governors have at least paid lip service to environmental causes, and McGreevey, so far, has delivered more promises than policy. But in contrast to the more laissez-faire environmental stance of his Republican predecessor, Christine Todd Whitman, and a Bush administration that has eased federal environmental rules nationwide, New Jersey's governor is emerging as something of a green guerrilla, at least in the eyes of Trenton's building and business lobbies, who say he is favoring environmental protection over economic development.

"Right now there's a lot of bad feeling and apprehension out there," said Richard Goldberg, president of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, which represents 800 companies. "Considering that he just hit businesses with a $1.8 billion tax hike and tens of millions in increased fees, some of these new rules are like rubbing salt in an open wound."

McGreevey, who spoke repeatedly about sprawl during his campaign, says he is not opposed to development. He just views unregulated growth as a root of New Jersey's woes, leading to incorrigible traffic jams, spiraling property taxes and some of the worst air quality in the nation.

"The reason many families live in New Jersey is because we have a relatively high quality of life," he said in an interview. "What we're witnessing right now is the decimation of that quality of life. The status quo is simply not working."

`The mirror image'

Although they are awaiting measurable change in the status quo, environmental advocates, who regularly clashed with Whitman (author of the slogan "New Jersey is open for business"), have already embraced the governor as a savior. "It's like Bizarro World from the Superman comics," said Jeff Tittel, president of the Sierra Club in New Jersey. "It's the mirror image of the Whitman days, when we spent all our time fighting the loosening of regulations."

During her two terms in office, Whitman, now administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, made open space preservation and coastline protection the hallmarks of her administration. But even members of her own party criticized the cuts she made in environmental programs, including the elimination of the offices of environmental prosecutor and public advocate.

When it came to air and water pollution, Whitman favored a more cooperative approach with industry, eliminating rules that she said were hurting businesses. Critics often cite the 80 percent drop in environmental fines levied during her tenure, but supporters say that such figures obscure that compliance actually increased.

McGreevey's environmental commissioner, Bradley M. Campbell, a Washington lawyer who served in the Clinton White House, has already made it clear that self-policing is out. Besides the sweep in Camden, his agency fined Ramapo College for building a dormitory on wetlands, and reversed a Whitman administration decision that allowed a prominent cranberry grower to expand his operations in the fragile Pine Barrens.

As the mayor of suburban Woodbridge and a former pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, McGreevey had a limited environmental record before his inauguration last January. But even if his environmental credentials are thin, he long ago realized that green is a winning color in New Jersey politics.

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