Has The D&R Canal Commission Made A Case For Regional Planning In Central Jersey?

The D&R Canal near Princeton. (Click to expand.)

The D&R Canal near Princeton. (Click to expand.)

The D&R Canal Commission issued an extraordinary planning decision last month, over-ruling the recommendation of their own staff and rejecting a plan by Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study to develop part of their land as faculty housing. The case raises interesting questions about who is in charge of planning in Central Jersey…The Institute plan was approved unanimously by the Princeton Regional Planning Board- but required the sign-off of the D&R Canal Commission, which was set up in 1974 to oversee a large swathe of Central Jersey that was designated the ‘D&R Canal State Park’. By rejecting the proposed development, the Commission has made a strong statement, over-ruling municipal home rule.

The case raises questions about future development in Central Jersey. The ‘review zone’ of the D&R Canal Commission is very broad- covering large areas of Mercer, Monmouth, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Somerset Counties. Developments in this area risk the veto  of the Commission if they are judged not to provide a ‘greater ecological benefit’ than not building. As part of the Institute plan, an area of land would be set aside for drainage that far exceeds the area that would be built on. The Commission’s hard line has raised the bar on what constitutes ‘greater ecological benefit’, and is likely to make new development more challenging and costly. That will delight preservationists, but risks pushing needed development to sites beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction, making local planning disorderly, and increasing vehicle-miles-traveled in the region.

The Review Zone for the D&R Canal Commission. (click to expand.) (Via New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

The Review Zone for the D&R Canal Commission. (click to expand.) Via New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

The Institute will likely still build some version of their housing plan- either by appealing the Commission’s ruling or by purchasing more set-aside land to demonstrate ecological value. We already made a suggestion about how we think the Institute should expand faculty housing (obviously we’d like something more walkable). More generally, the case is interesting, because it raises the question of ‘what is the right level at which planning should occur’? There are potential benefits to planning on a regional basis, instead of devolving planning to New Jersey’s multitude of mini-municipalities, which have a track record of exclusionary zoning. Problems like traffic, housing need and social exclusion are rarely solved at the parochial level. Is the D&R Canal Commission the right body to do planning at a regional level? Not really. But could another regional board do a better job?

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2 Responses to Has The D&R Canal Commission Made A Case For Regional Planning In Central Jersey?

  1. You do know that the D&R Commission was established primarily to protect the quality of the water going into the canal as the canal is now a major water supply for much of Central Jersey.

    Also you say, the Commission “was set up in 1974 to oversee a large swathe of Central Jersey that was designated the ‘D&R Canal State Park’.” You make it sound like the whole review zone is the park, which its not. Just the canal corridor and several ancillary properties under the park units pervue. The large review zone, which includes numerous watersheds that provide some of the water that goes into the canal, however IS a large swathe of Central Jersey.

    Interesting decision by the Commission. Will need to read more.

    • Yes, totally fair point- the ‘Park’ is not the same as the review zone. The review zone is remarkably large, taking in the whole watershed I guess. It makes sense to consider the whole area though because development in any part of the watershed affects the total amount of impervious cover and therefore drainage issues which might impact water flow and quality. We have water moving over large areas and people moving over large areas but municipal planning works on very small areas and that doesn’t make much sense.

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