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Smart Growth Inspired New Jersey Town Now Unable to Provide for More Children
Detail: Washington Township, eight miles east of Trenton in Mercer County, designed according to state planning goals as a remedy to suburban sprawl, has become a victim of its own success according to town officials and residents. Washington Township was the first municipality in New Jersey to build a new town center, Washington Town Center, as a high-density "smart growth" development echoing early-20th-century towns and covering 3 percent of Washington Township's land. The new development used a planning grant from the state's Office of Smart Growth and attracted thousands of families within a very short time. As a result the schools are overflowing, property taxes are skyrocketing and the main streets are clogged. Overwhelmed, town officials have turned trailers into classrooms, eliminated a separate fire district to save $900,000 and lent their construction manager to Asbury Park for a $150,000 fee. Last month, they sued the state Department of Education for money they claim was unfairly cut off when Washington Township was deemed too wealthy to receive what is known as "core curriculum aid," about $2 million a year.

According to George Hawkins, executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit group that supports smart growth. "Washington Township did everything right for smart growth, but families want to live there so bad, their numbers have gone through the roof....We're going to undercut ourselves if we make it more expensive for people to do the right thing." Mayor David Fried said, “We've won just about every award out there for smart growth, but we're getting no help from the state..." Some Washington Township residents, as well as town officials, have started to blame smart growth for the municipal problems. While the majority of the 13,000 residents live outside Town Center, nearly all of the 2,500 who have arrived since 2000 live there. "We're constantly hitting a brick wall because the average resident doesn't really get the benefits of a pedestrian-friendly concept," said Jodi Stephens, who has lived in Washington Township for more than 20 years and is a plaintiff in the school-aid lawsuit.

Mayor Fried, meanwhile, is considering a drastic remedy using eminent domain to seize undeveloped tracts and prevent developers from building hundreds of more homes that will bring in more young families. He has begun soliciting bids to appraise the town's undeveloped parcels that are zoned for 500 new homes, the first step in a potential eminent domain seizure. Mr. Fried said, "The last thing you want to do is turn kids into liabilities…we were slated for another 500 homes, and if we did that, it would be catastrophic because I can't even handle the kids we have already." The smart growth concept was conceived as a family-friendly model where homes, shopping, schools and businesses are all within walking distance. Turning away children is about the last thing anyone expected in a successful "smart growth" development.

Source: Based on “In Success of 'Smart Growth,' New Jersey Town Feels Strain” by KEN BELSON, The New York Times, April 9, 2007
Date: April 10 2007