Trenton — Amidst a backdrop of another day of major statewide flooding, the latest study shows that New Jersey, already the nation’s most densely populated state, continues to lose farmland, forests and open space to development, according to figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This rampant and accelerating loss of land comes despite state officials’ claims that they are “winning the war on sprawl” and the “race for open space.”
Due to the flooding, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection DEP) abruptly cancelled a briefing today on the most recent data on land use/land cover from a Rutgers/Rowan University Study. Based on aerial photographs taken between 1995 and 2002, the study shows New Jersey suffered a rapid rate of urban development and loss of open space:
- Urban Development Rate. From 1995-2002, urban development spread over another 105,988 acres of New Jersey’s landscape. The annual rate of urban development statewide during that period was 15,140 acres per year. This represents an increase in the rate of development from the 1986 to 1995 period rate of 14,886 acres per year;
- Loss of Open Space. The majority of open space loss was farmland (55,530 net acres lost); and
- Hotspots for forest, farmland, and wetlands losses. The study shows a significant increase in the conversion of forest land since the previous period. The major hotspots of upland forest loss (more than 500 acres per year) include the coastal counties of Atlantic, Monmouth and Ocean, where the annual rates of forest loss have all significantly increased (+58%, +82%, and +59%, respectively) and Morris county (north central Jersey) which lost approximately 741 acres per year. Wetlands loss followed a largely similar pattern to the areas of rapid development, with coastal and central counties experiencing the greatest loss.
“This data shows that what we are doing is not working,” stated New Jersey PEER Director, Bill Wolfe, referring to DEP touting the combination of the State Development and Redevelopment Plan, strict environmental regulation, the Highlands Act, and the Green Acres/Farmland Preservation land acquisition programs. “These alarming findings validate the views of my esteemed colleague, Bill Neil, former Audubon Society Conservation Director, who called the State Plan the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the people of New Jersey.”
The continued loss of wetlands, forests and farmlands aggravates the effect of storm surges and storm-related flooding. In addition, it negatively affects watershed protection, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, recreation, and other important values.
DEP has been delaying the adoption of long-promised new regulations to strictly regulate development, protect threatened and endangered species habitat, impose stream buffers, and prohibit extension of water, sewer and septic system infrastructure to all remaining environmentally sensitive lands.
“State officials need to get serious about preserving what’s left of our rapidly vanishing landscape before the bulldozers pave what is left,” Wolfe concluded.
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.