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The Defiant One
Page 2

Almost one year ago, Governor McGreevey and his commissioner vowed to unleash the nation's toughest anti-sprawl campaign in this country's most densely packed state. The state loses nearly 50 acres a day to development -- not a huge number compared to states like California, but New Jersey has little space to spare. The rapacious appetite of the developers was something Campbell, in large part, was hired to stop. The most notorious symbol of this initiative has been the BIG (Blueprint for Intelligent Growth) map, which lays out one of the most ambitious land conservation programs in the nation. It includes color-coded regions: Green means growth; yellow means limited growth; red means little or no growth.

Photo of Bradley Campbell during a news conferenceBut only 10 months after unveiling the map, the administration had to revise it under intense pressure from the building industry and its allies in the state legislature. This retreat has delighted the builders, many of whom see in Campbell and the governor a pair of crusaders willing to cripple business to promote an unrealistic environmental agenda. They say the decision to change the map constitutes a sign that they are beginning to tame the McGreevey administration.

"Campbell was politically naive," says Jim Sinclair, the first vice-president of the state's Business and Industry Association. "This has been a very partisan administration. It was initially a very antibusiness administration. Things have changed; the commissioner and his staff are learning. They have become more responsive to the larger needs of the state instead of just a narrow political agenda."

Campbell, however, refuses to concede any setbacks. He insists, over dinner at a restaurant in his hometown of Lambertville, a bucolic village about 20 minutes from Trenton, that what he cannot do through legislation he and the governor can do with regulation. He argues that the map, which has dominated the debate over land use in the state since it was introduced, is a red herring. It is late, he is obviously tired, and as he finishes his dinner and a glass of red wine, he becomes more heated. The goals of the map, he says, will be met in other ways, with other tactics. He says that his office can issue regulations that will stop development near watersheds and streams, as well as on open land. The regulations, he says, will achieve the goals of the scuttled color-coded map without the map.

"We will propose regulatory reforms to strengthen environmental protections by the end of the year," he says. "This is not a defeat. This does not mean we will not be able to carry out our goals."

Some of the proposed regulatory reforms would require habitat conservation plans for areas with threatened and endangered species; others would strengthen wetlands protections in watershed areas.

Indeed, builders charge that although the map is gone, the governor's unstated goal to weaken the building industry remains in place. Groups such as the Builders League of South Jersey were busy lobbying legislative candidates from each party who ran for the 120 seats in the statehouse this year. The McGreevey administration's efforts to curb development have spurred record membership in the builders association and record campaign contributions to builder-friendly candidates, many of whom are Democrats. The map may have fallen victim to the builders' lobby, but it is clear that many builders intend the real victims in 2005 to be the governor and his combative commissioner.

"My first preference is always to identify common ground for moving forward," Campbell insists. "In many areas we are doing that. But the builders' lobby in New Jersey seems to me uniquely hostile to compromise and negotiation. At a point when the federal government is weakening environmental protection across the board, I'm committed to moving the state in a more progressive direction. I want to give this governor an unrivaled environmental legacy. Being able to achieve that progress makes it worth the fight."

Environmentalists have watched this pitched battle between Campbell and the builders with a mixture of dread and amusement. Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, says that during the Whitman years the Department of Environmental Protection had degenerated into a "don't test, don't tell" agency.

Whitman, of course, left the governorship to head the EPA under President Bush, a post from which she resigned last spring. Under Whitman, there was little effort, Tittel continues, to hunt down or report violations. Tittel says the department gathered within its offices a large number of "anti-environmental people" who are currently working against Campbell "trying to sabotage the improvements."

"Commissioner Campbell has set up some strong goals on sprawl and on clean water," Tittel says. "But because the department is the way it is, our concern is: Can they actually get the things done? From where we stand it's frustrating because you're expecting these wonderful changes but it's still business as usual because the old rules are still in effect. It's an 'A' for goals and an 'incomplete' for deliverables."

This seems to be the view shared by most environmentalists, who are still waiting for the commissioner to deliver what he has promised. "His heart is very much in the right place," says David Pringle, the campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "That's a significant change from the Whitman administration. Whitman set the bar very low."

Campbell, as many of his opponents remind you, did not come out of New Jersey politics. A graduate of Amherst College, where he majored in history, Campbell went on to attend law school at the University of Chicago, graduating near the top of his class. As a law student, he spent summers working for The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, where he was first introduced to environmental law. After a brief stint in private practice, he joined the United States Justice Department and was eventually recruited by the department's Environmental Natural Resources division. Under President Clinton, he became the associate director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality and then the regional administrator of the mid-Atlantic region for the EPA. When Campbell got the call from Governor McGreevey, he was preparing to teach his spring course load at the University of North Carolina.

McGreevey's poll numbers have since plunged, yet the recent midterm election was the first in 50 years in which a sitting governor's party gained seats. But because of opposition to the governor's environmental agenda within his own party, the victory may not translate into a boost for his programs. Campbell insists the governor will not back down. Campbell's critics, however, say the verdict is still out: In New Jersey, builders with deep pockets and inroads into a political system rife with corruption don't lose many battles.

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Photo: Brian Branch-Price (AP)

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council