DEP junks its master map for builders

Blueprint caught flak from all sides

Monday, October 20, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

From the time it was unveiled by the state Department of Environmental Protection in January, the BIG Map was touted as something grand and sweeping. Even its name seemed to suggest action on a whole new scale.

Now, it appears to be dead.

The Blueprint for Intelligent Growth was to have roped off environmentally sensitive areas and made it difficult to develop there. Those areas appeared in red on the map, and borderline areas were shaded yellow. As a bone to builders, construction permits would be placed on a fast track if projects were located in other "green" areas.

But the map became a lightning rod for criticism.

Builders hated it, quickly dubbing it the Big Red Map. Many elected officials in rural areas said it ignored their long-drawn plans for growth; those in green said they were being set up for too much development.

When revisions were made to try and soothe hurt feelings, environmentalists cried foul.

Now, DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell, who dreamed up the map, has decided to scrap it.

In its place, he will introduce rules that allow DEP regulators to scrutinize development proposals in environmentally sensitive areas and fast-track those in places slated for growth.

But he will defer to a map that is part of the state Development and Redevelopment Plan, one drawn over more than a decade with input from county planners and countless other citizens.

Supporters of that map were furious when Campbell trotted out his BIG Map because, they said, having two maps would confuse everyone.

In a recent interview, Gov. James E. McGreevey joked that it would be nice if he could say the BIG Map was really a ploy to make the State Plan map more palatable to its opponents.

Supporters of regional planning were predictably elated at the decision to kill the BIG Map, which was announced by Campbell to some of the most vociferous opponents at a closed door meeting Friday in Trenton.

But those same State Plan supporters sounded a diplomatic note, saying that Campbell's compromise will make their map stronger than it's ever been and signal to both builders and environmentalists that the state is serious about building in the right places.

"It's dead, but it has moved the whole process forward," said Barbara Lawrence, director of the anti-sprawl watchdog New Jersey Future, a leading supporter of strong regional planning.

Dave Pringle of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, a leading supporter of the BIG Map, was similarly upbeat.

"DEP has been developing and will continue to develop natural resources data that should be a critical component of where we build," Pringle said. "DEP is not ceding any of its authority to the state Planning Commission."

Still, he said, it would be in everyone's interest if changes were made to the State Plan map to reflect environmental concerns. That is even true of developers, he said, because it would offer them clearer direction, avoiding permit application denials by DEP that cost them time and money.

Builders are likely to fight, however, if changes to the State Plan map are proposed that make it harder to build anywhere.

"I think the governor and Commissioner Campbell have been very clear that they will do whatever it takes to stop homes being built in the suburbs of New Jersey," said Patrick O'Keefe, chief executive officer for the New Jersey Builders Association.

Campbell said he has already forwarded natural resource data -- mapping everything from the presence of endangered species to important water supplies -- to the Office of Smart Growth, and planners are working to incorporate the data into the State Plan map.

Proposed revisions to the map will be publicized and considered next year.

Although state planning commissioners are the only ones who can change their map, Campbell insisted that his idea was alive and well in another form.

"To avoid the confusion generated by two maps, we are crafting substantive rules anchored more directly to the State Plan map," he said. "There won't be a second map, but the rules will implement our proposal."

Steve Chambers covers land-use issues. He may be reached at or (973) 392-1674.