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Thursday, July 18, 2024

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Co. Works to Update Comprehensive Plan

By Vince Conti

CREST HAVEN – Gaining a vision for Cape May County’s future often involves integrating the realities of 16 separate municipalities. In New Jersey, much of the authority over land use rests at the municipal level.
As the municipalities exercise their powers daily in ways that define their physical form and character, one potential coordinating document that can provide an overview and guide for county and regional development is the county Comprehensive Plan.
Now, for the first time in over 15 years, the Cape May County Planning Department is busy updating the county’s current plan.
Cape May County issued its first comprehensive plan in 1962, and a second one in 1976. Updates followed in 1985 and 1996, with the fifth edition of the plan adopted in 2002.
The 39-page document is largely bereft of data, maps and detailed action recommendations. It is more of a general overview of traditional master plan elements or topics with some broad policy statements that often pledge the county to “encourage” desired outcomes.
One reason the plan is general is because it deals largely with issues where the county places a minor role. Improving the utility of the comprehensive plan is one of the goals of the current effort to update it.
Requirement for a County Plan
Why have a county comprehensive plan? One simple answer is that the state says counties must have one, yet counties across the state are trying to produce plans that can provide an integrated vision of the future and guide decision making. Some are quite large and detailed.
In 1935, when Republican Harold Hoffman was governor of New Jersey and Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat in the White House, with the Great Depression ongoing and World War II not yet a reality, the state enacted the County Planning Enabling Act. Before this legislation, all planning functions took place at the municipal level.
Between the act and New Jersey’s Municipal Land Use Law, a small role was carved out for counties, including the right to set up county planning boards, which also gave birth to county planning departments to support the boards. Cape May County established its Planning Board in 1954.
Counties were not required to set up planning boards, but if they did so, and all 21 counties in the state have done so, the board is required to develop or adopt a “master plan for the physical development of the county.” The document is called a master plan in some counties and a comprehensive plan in others.
The state does not dictate the detailed content or form of the plan nor does it require that the plan be updated on a mandated schedule. Municipal master plans must be reexamined every 10 years.  
The purpose of a county plan under state rules is vague, leaving maximum room for interpretations and use to the counties. For some, it is a requirement to be met, a document that, once created, has little real-world impact on county development. For others, it is a chance to provide a larger vision for county and regional development.
The flexibility exists to make the document whatever the county chooses. The variety of ways counties have approached this planning responsibility shows the breadth of flexibility involved.
Cape May County’s Plan
All of the state’s county plans concern themselves with the future development across a series of specific aspects like streets and roads, forests, waterways, open space, farmland preservation, environment, and certain land use issues, among others.  
Cape May County’s plan talks generally about each topic area and contains broad policy statements. They also often place the county in the position of encouraging and assisting municipalities and other independent or semi-independent agencies, where much of the real authority rests.
The current plan does not lay out a vision for the county’s future nor does it define a roadmap to that future. It would be difficult, at best, to take the broad policy statements in the current plan and evaluate the county’s progress toward its general goals.
Part of the problem is that static plans rely on data that age rapidly, losing its connection to real-world changes.
The reliance of the county’s plan on decennial census data means that the plan is quickly outdated when trends move in a direction other than that projected when the plan was developed.
One example is current projected growth and then stabilization in county population, while the reality has been declining numbers. One of the few data charts in the document projected continued growth in the county population from what was the peak in 2000. Instead of the 7% growth in population projected for 2020, the reality is that most sources now see a continued decline.
Another example is that the current plan states that the “long-term trend on constructing mostly seasonal dwellings has peaked.” Tell that to the municipalities where the governing bodies have had to enact new regulations on construction noise, restrictions on summer demolitions and increases in their enforcement capabilities.
In short, the current plan is static, not a dynamic document.
That could change in the upcoming sixth iteration of the plan. County Planning Director Leslie Gimeno hopes to make the plan more useful both to government officials and the public.
Gimeno wants the plan to maintain a focus on the things the county-level government can control and influence. Her focus, she said, is to provide an overview of general trends and demographics that impact the county as a whole, a picture from a high enough vantage point to capture a regional rather than municipal view.
The problem with any process that heavily relies on decennial census data is the need to provide access to more updated and timely data. Here, Gimeno said she wants to develop a series of links on the website that would facilitate interested users accessing real-time information directly from sources like the Census Bureau or the Department of Labor.
Gimeno is attempting to make up for the small county planning staff by referencing documents and plans that come from regional entities that the county planning organization participates with, groups like the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization, which can provide an updated insight into transportation issues, an important part of the comprehensive plan.
The trick is how to develop a plan that provides a meaningful overview of county needs and trends while simultaneously introducing some new dynamism in what has always been a static document. It is easier to envision than to do.
County Plan vs. County Planning
Some citizens have called for a more robust county planning effort. In an Aug. 28 Op-ed (http://bit.ly/2Wm7AaQ), Peter Jespersen called for more focused planning and availability of current data. Jespersen was speaking for Cape Issues, a voluntarily formed citizen group that concerns itself with issues of importance to county growth and quality of life.
Jespersen argued that it would be “appropriate if the public had easy access to how the county balances the need for economic development, environmental protection, open space preservation, emergency planning (evacuation) and transportation planning.” A vision for the balancing of these factors can be a natural outcome of a new comprehensive plan, if the county chooses to use the plan to do so.
Not all that Jespersen identified as deficiencies in county planning are issues appropriate to the comprehensive plan, but many are, including access to current data.
Gimeno’s stated goals for the update to the 2002 plan are at least an acknowledgment of major drawbacks in the county’s current way of providing data to the public. The data book available on the county website is filled with static data points, almost all a decade or more old. 
The county website does not even provide citizens with the correct composition of the Planning Board. The list of Planning Board members includes individuals who no longer serve and omits individuals who are on the board. 
Similarly, regardless of the timeframe specified, the minutes of one Planning Board meeting, January 2019, are available to the public.
There is a big gap between the kind of dynamism Gimeno said she would like to bring to publicly accessible data and the reality of the county’s current website.
Schedules and the Public
Gimeno admits that the stated goal of a fall 2019 update of the comprehensive plan will not happen. She said the plan is in the works, but still a few months away from a draft document that will be shared with the public.
Noting that she wants public input into the document, Gimeno said the two occasions for eliciting that input would be when a draft document is ready for Planning Board approval, and when the approved document is sent to the freeholders to be adopted.
“There will be public hearings before each of those steps,” she said.
As for the schedule, Gimeno said they are probably looking at a “winter document,” with public involvement possibly in early spring.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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