A Bittersweet Future: Zoning Review Committee Presents Report on Development Options in Delaware Township

On June 19, before the Township Committee and Planning Board, the Delaware Township Zoning Review Committee (ZRC) presented recommendations resulting from one and a half years of study and public outreach on the subject of the Township’s zoning regulations and their ability to meet the goals of the Township’s Master Plan.

It is difficult to comprehend the multitude of factors creating development pressure on Delaware Township. The constant migration of people in the country’s most densely populated state in search of greener land, cheaper housing and lower taxes; the state government’s imposition of ever-expanding affordable housing requirements; a diminishing supply of developable land and an insatiable demand by builders and consumers for new housing; the movement by large companies – and their employees  – from urban areas to corporate parks built on former farm land. The list goes on.

And while the suburbs have sprawled across New Jersey over the last 75 years, Delaware Township has remained largely rural and agricultural, one of the last vestiges of farming communities that once defined the Garden State. This is due, in part, to the concerted and committed effort by this community to invest in farmland and open space preservation, but it has also happened because of the luck of geographic circumstances. Delaware Township is located a fortunately inconvenient distance from the growth in the northern, eastern and southern areas of the state. But sprawl has come to our borders and threatens to march on us.

Deciding how – and if – Delaware Township should work to maintain its rural character is as complex a challenge as the forces compelling the question. Confronting this complexity is what the ZRC was tasked with in January 2007 by the Township Committee.

The ZRC began its work on two fronts: it enlisted the resources and services of several professional planners, attorneys and consultants specializing in land use; and it began a public outreach program that resulted in fourteen public meetings with constituents from every facet of Township life invited and participating. The ZRC’s goal was to understand the community’s vision of its future and to pair that vision with the best land use policies to support it.

The results of the ZRC report paint this picture: development will happen in this township, whether we plan for it or not. If we plan for it, we have some control over our destiny. If we don’t, we face the same fate that many New Jersey communities have faced.

The ZRC conducted a “build out” analysis, a study of what the township would look like if we took a “do nothing” approach and allowed the developable land in the township to be developed under current zoning. What emerges from that study is a picture of Delaware Township with an additional 1,867 homes – more than double the current number –  and between 5,577 and 6,882 additional residents with 1,520 more school aged children. Nearly 70% of township land would be developed, but that development would likely be spread out over a lengthy time line.

As part of its outreach program, the ZRC conducted four facilitator-run public meetings, the first one titled “What’s so special about Delaware Township?”. These meetings were aimed at developing an understanding of the consensus of the community on whether the picture painted in the build out analysis was what the community favored, or if it envisioned some other future. From these meetings, the summaries of which were presented in its report, the ZRC  established that the community sees its future in controlling development, in preserving and protecting farmland and natural resources, and in maintaining today’s rural character.

So the ZRC believes the community agrees on what it wants; establishing the consensus on how it wants to get there is another challenge. The section of the report on community vision cites many pros and cons from community members weighing in on topics such as downzoning (creating larger minimum lot sizes), land owner equity, dense development around hamlets and villages, increases in population, diversity, and even “incompatible neighbors”.

From the report, it is apparent that early in the process the ZRC became interested in a method of land use regulation called “Transfer of Development Rights” (TDR). This strategy, which has a number of benefits, but also significant costs, is compatible with what the ZRC found to be a consensus on the kind of development the community would like to see: hamlets and villages, with diverse housing designed compatibly with the character of the township and the preservation of open space and farmland.

The opinions expressed by the community were not unanimous on this, however. In those meetings and at the June 19 meeting when the ZRC presented its reports, there were residents who, while they favored preservation, also favored large lots and downzoning in contrast to dense development in hamlets.

TDR, in a nutshell, creates “sending zones” and “receiving zones”. Sending zones, as identified by the ZRC, are areas where preservation of farmland is desirable. Receiving zones are areas identified as “growth areas”, places in the township that would be most suitable to development.

A builder who wants to construct houses in a community that uses TDR in its zoning must purchase land in the receiving zone and must purchase development potential from the landowners in the sending zones. With those two components in hand, the developer then builds in a dense pattern likened to a hamlet or village. The zoning ordinance for the receiving (growth) zone regulates many aspects of construction such as style, size, materials and landscaping. The portion of land in the sending zone is then deed restricted – preserved in perpetuity.

The ZRC has put forward for consideration a clever plan for establishing sending and receiving zones. In studying the way two other townships in the state have implemented TDR, the ZRC found that those townships identified large sending zones and a single receiving zone. The advantage of this for these towns is that the majority of their townships will be preserved under TDR. The disadvantage is that the sending zones are enormous developments, albeit with character. The ZRC felt that such a plan would be incompatible with the character on Delaware Township and would fail to gain popular support.

The concept that the ZRC has put forward for Delaware Township establishes three receiving zones, each surrounded by a “green belt” of sending zones, connecting existing preserved farms with prime farmlands in a ring around a hamlet-style development. In two cases, the zones extend existing hamlets: Rosemont and Sergeantsville. In the third case, a new hamlet would be created in what is labeled, rather poignantly, the “Bittersweet” zone. This is a parcel of land on Route 523 just above Stockton where the Bittersweet farm is now located.

The benefits of this concept, according to the report, are that the receiving zones will eventually become locked by preserved farmland, ensuring that the zones don’t continue to grow. In addition, in two of the cases they build on established communities and leverage existing infrastructure or access to infrastructure necessary to support denser development. And by distributing the sending zones to three areas, rather than one, it diminishes the size and impact of development.

TDR has many positives: land preservation, compatible architecture, development consistent with the Master Plan, and preservation of landowner equity. An important contrast of TDR to the downzoning alternative lies in the preservation aspect of TDR. Downzoning is not permanent – 10 acre zones can be established and they can be repealed. The Township could have 10 acre zones for 10 years, and find that development pressures and political temperament will justify turning those zones back into three acres zones, or less. Under TDR, preservation in the sending zone is permanent.

But there are negatives as well. The ZRC report contains a section titled “A Cautionary Note about TDR”. Receiving zones require infrastructure and a significant part of that is sewage treatment, which is costly and poses environmental risks. In addition, TDR could actually increase the township’s affordable housing requirements.

The biggest negative, however, is that the Township could face accelerated development. While the population under TDR might not reach the projections in the build out analysis, the designation of specific areas for development would likely attract builders and the township could see a rapid rise in the number of houses and population. That experience could be traumatic.

According to the report, TDR could potentially preserve 2100 acres and along with that preservation reduce the number of houses that could have been built on that land down from approximately 350 to 122. The ZRC also studied the township’s ability to continue spending on farmland preservation and concluded that – absent further bonding and/or an expanded open space tax – there exists the ability to preserve approximately another 700+ acres of farmland before our funds are extinguished.

On weighing the costs and benefits, the ZRC sees potential in TDR as one way to manage land use, but it makes clear that it is not the only way. In fact, the ZRC report states that the best solution for the township may be a blend of strategies, employing TDR, larger lot sizes through downzoning, continued (but diminished) open space and farmland preservation and another tool called “non-contiguous clustering” (which this author hasn’t had time to understand yet.) In addition, at its meeting, members of the ZRC encouraged audience members to come forward with new ideas.

With the presentation of its report, the ZRC concluded Phase One of its mandate. It places into the hands of the Township Committee the decision to continue the review and encourages the Township to do so and to continue aggressive community outreach on the subject.