written for the Roosevelt Borough Bulletin, May 1991
It seems that development is in the air again -- the Master Plan is being
revised and amended to allow even more residential development; the
Borough Council is commissioning study after study to determine how
to deal with the "underdeveloped" parts of the Borough; the Trust
for Public Land is being turned into a tool for the construction of
new luxury condos and townhouses. All that's missing is the inevitable
presentation from the 1990's version of Switchel, Inc. and we'll be
happily eliminating those unsightly undeveloped areas surrounding
But is residential development something good? Why should
we push for it? Obviously, I don't believe that further residential
development is the sort of goal we should be pursuing. With one exception,
the arguments for additional residential development fall far short
of building any sort of case for the pro-developers. In fact, the
reasons given for promoting development actually demonstrate that
we should be doing everything in our power to limit residential growth.
Some of the main arguments I have heard "supporting" development are:
1. "Residential development will have economic benefits for Roosevelt"
This is the most pervasive and persuasive argument used by the pro-developers
(especially if you buy into the pathetically dim view of humanity
that "the only reality is cold, hard cash"). We are suffering from
an enormous debt burden. It only makes sense that spreading the suffering
over a larger number of people (increasing the ratables) will ease
the individual pain, right? Wrong. What is left out of this equation
is the increased cost of services a residential development brings
with it. I remembered from my days as a staff member of the Indiana
Association of Cities and Towns that municipalities look to industrial
and commercial development to increase ratables, not to residential
development. I wanted to confirm my recollection,
so I called up Kevin Dogan at IACT, a former colleague and the
planning and zoning expert in Indiana. Here's what Kevin said about
Indiana: "There are almost always more direct costs than direct benefits
associated with residential development".
Realizing that there are
very real interstate differences, I contacted the New Jersey League
of Municipalities and got an even stronger statement from Bert Wolfe,
their development expert: Development is at best a break-even proposition,
"definitely in the case of residential development." Most towns look
for industrial/commercial development to increase ratables, but even
that is now "questionable how much of a plus" it will be for contemporary
New Jersey boroughs.
But hey, these guys are all basing their expertise
on only assumptions and suppositions, right? Wrong. Cornell University
did a recent study of the impact of residential development on two
small towns in Dutchess County, New York. One town was slightly larger
than Roosevelt, the other was very similar to Roosevelt. Increased
residential development demanded $1.12 of services for every $1 generated
for the slightly larger town, and required $1.36 for every $1 in the
town similar to Roosevelt. The conclusion of this study was that "the
residential sector is demanding more in services than it is contributing
in revenues. This fact should caution communities to think twice about
development proposals which will not only increase the demand for
services, but which may remove valuable farmland as well."
2. "Residential development will do wonders for the school"
equation here is that increased enrollment in the school will naturally
improve the quality of education at RPS. If the municipal development
experts and case studies of residential development are to be believed,
then we will be paying more for the same level of service after further
development. What does this
mean for the school? Well, if you don't buy into the
it means that we will be paying more just to maintain the level of
education we currently have. My daughter will be entering RPS next
fall, and I would rather spend money directly to improve the quality
of education than spend money just to keep up with increasing enrollment.
I think we have the potential to develop a terrific educational program
here in Roosevelt, but we won't be able to do this if our debt burden
is increased by further residential development. It seems to me that
the true "pro-school" stance should emphasize quality instead of quantity.
3. "Development is inevitable"
This statement, often accompanied
by some sort of scare tactic (you know, the good old "a developer
may sue us and bleed us dry with legal fees" school of Rational Thinking),
may be true. But does this mean we must actively encourage development?
We had a solid Master Plan in place which allowed for limited growth.
Why shoot for more? Why spend even more money on silly studies designed
to help a potential developer when we should be working to prevent
residential development? If we cannot afford to support additional
development, then I certainly don't think that it is inevitable. Recent
Council rhetoric and actions seem to suggest otherwise, however. Too
bad, considering how much it will cost us. Personally, this statement
comes across to me the same way that assertions like "destruction
of the rain forests is inevitable" and "depletion of the ozone layer
is inevitable" do. And when this is coupled with incredible remarks
such as ''we must develop to preserve open space", then I really have
to sit back and ponder why "this sentence is false". Jeez, talk about
your "peace-keeping missiles..."
4. "Residential development is aesthetically pleasing"
This is the
single argument I cannot rebut. I also cannot imagine the mind of
the person who believes that the beauty of a development outweighs
the natural beauty of the land. I would like for this person to drive
with me through the traffic in Plainsboro at 5 p.m. and explain why
development is desirable. I would like for this person to read with
me the police reports of vandalism and theft at Twin Rivers and explain
why development is desirable. I would like for this person to explain
the aesthetic appeal of a field full of cookie-cutter condos. No,
I cannot argue the point with this person. We literally have no common
Why did I write this article? Because through our own actions
development is indeed beginning to appear inevitable. Sadly, it doesn't
have to be; and tragically, it shouldn't be. I wanted to show that
there are no good, sound reasons to actively pursue and encourage
residential development. To be sure, those in favor of further residential
development will trot out assumptions and projections showing how
wonderful life in Roosevelt will be after 200 or 300 new "units" are
added-some amazing spreadsheet program must give them omniscient powers
and knowledge far beyond the overwhelming majority of planning and
zoning experts. I can easily trot out assumptions and projections
showing the opposite. When confronted by this mass of data, however,
please gently remind yourself that this experiment has already been
done all across America, and the results have been dismal. Case study
after case study verifies this: Residential development simply does
Drive around New Jersey some day. How much open space can
you find? Can you find the pastoral scenes which have inspired that
American imagination for the past several centuries? Can you see the
beauty of the land? Self-interested developers have been raping this
land for the past decade. It is now time to stop.