For years, you drive past a patch of forest. Then, one day, trees are cut down. Construction vehicles are clearing the land. What happened to the woods? What are they putting there?
We tend to think that once something is there, it will be there forever. That’s really not the case – especially when it comes to nature. Unless it is specifically preserved as open space, it will one day be a development.
Every square inch of your town is accounted for. A town labels every lot with a certain zone. They might be residential, commercial, industrial, or some combination. It gets further broken down – one area might be zoned for single family homes while another might be multi-family (apartments, condos).
Just because it’s zoned a certain way, that doesn’t mean there’s a plan. It just says what the town officials want it to be some day. They might think “This area near the highway is a good place for businesses, but not for houses.” So that’s how they zone it. Then, one day, a developer comes along and says “I want to built a strip mall here.”
Every so often, the zoning changes. Sometimes it’s done piecemeal. Sometimes it’s a huge undertaking. Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL/N.J.S.A. 40:55D-28) requires every town in New Jersey to adopt a comprehensive plan or master plan, and to revisit it every ten years. This would be an entire town’s plan.
It’s why I have to laugh when politicians are surprised at overdevelopment. At some point, within the last ten years, someone decided that hundreds of homes should go over here, and businesses should go over there. Years later, a developer does just that and people are surprised?
If the politician thinks that there’s too much development, they can make changes in the zoning to fix that before a plan gets proposed. If they try to change the zoning after a plan gets proposed, it’s called spot zoning, and it can open them up to a lawsuit.
Sure, a politician can’t know everything that’s happening in their town, especially larger towns. And they can’t control what was done by officials before them. But they suffer from the same object permanence issue that the rest of us have – we think that once something is there, it will always be there.
Every election year, politicians promise they’ll fight overdevelopment. They really can’t do that once a plan is proposed. Further, they can’t meddle in the affairs of the land use boards that approve or deny developments. But they can change zoning. And they should.
Property owners have the right to use their property as they see fit, providing it’s legal. Town officials can tell you what’s allowed.
Some towns have an open space tax. It’s separate from your property taxes, but it all gets paid at the same time. It might be a penny on every $100,000 of valuation for your property. Ocean and Monmouth counties both have open space trust funds that make purchases that towns can’t afford.
Politicians can negotiate as long as they have a willing property owner. They can buy the land and preserve it as open space. And they should.
I’ve been to a lot of town meetings where people are upset that they will suddenly be living near an apartment complex, strip mall, or something like that. I don’t blame them. All of the woods I played in as a kid are gone now. All of it.
There is a way to be proactive, though.
If you love an area of woods, find out who owns it and what it is zoned. Some towns have this information available online. You might also have to look at county records for deeds. Sometimes, the solution is to reach out to someone at the town.
Ask your town leaders to preserve it. Many of the politicians I’ve talked to love having more open space in their towns. It saves them money on things like road maintenance and garbage collection. It also lowers the number of kids in the school district so school taxes don’t go up. It’s actually cheaper to buy land and keep it open space than to let it fill with 2.5 kids per household.
I oversimplified this extremely complicated process throughout this editorial, but the point is that every strip of land in town is going to be built upon unless it’s specifically saved.
So, if there’s a section of pristine land that you love, and you want it to stay that way, start working now to keep it open space forever.