Originally, politics had to do with the Proprietors, then the immigrants, then the King of England, then the establishment of the nation. Philadelphia first perfected the big-city political machine, which centers on bulk payments from utilities to the boss politician rather than small graft payments to individual office holders. More efficient that way.
Somewhere in the past few decades, Burlington became quite activist. Although many tend to think of real estate planning as urban planning, this largely rural county went in for planning in a big way, deciding what it was and what it wanted to be. Generally speaking, its decision was to replace urban sprawl with cluster promotion. The farmers didn't like an invasion by McMansions or industries, while the towns lost their vigor through tax avoidance behavior of the commuter residents. Overall, the decision was to push urban development along the river in clusters surrounding the declining river towns, while pushing exurban development closer to logical commuting centers, leaving the open spaces to farmers. Incentives were preferred to compulsion, with a determination never to use eminent domain except for matters of public safety.
To implement these goals, two referenda were passed with 70% majorities to create special taxes for a development fund, which bought the development rights from the farmers and -- with political magic -- re-clustered them around the river towns. The farmers loved it, the environmentalists loved it, and the towns began to revive. The success of this effort rested on the realization that exurbanites and farmers didn't really want to live near each other, and only did so because developers were looking for cheap land. Many other rural counties near cities -- Chester and Bucks Counties in Pennsylvania, for example -- need to learn this lesson about how to stop local political warfare. Corporation executives don't want to live next to pig farms, but pig farmers are quite right that they were living there, first. When this friction seeps into the local school system, class warfare can get pretty ugly.
|Burlington Bristol Bridge|
In Burlington County, they thought big. The central project was to push through the legislature a billion-dollar project to restore the Riverline light rail to the river towns, along the tracks of the once pre-eminent Camden and Amboy Rail Road. It was an unexpected success. During the first six months of operation, ridership achieved a level twice as large as was projected as a ten-year goal. Along this strip of the Route 206 corridor, the old Roebling Steel Works are becoming the Roebling Superfund Site, now trying to attract industrial developers. The Haines Industrial Site originally envisioned as a food distribution center was sold to private developers who have created 5000 jobs in the area. Commerce Park beside the Burlington Bristol Bridge is coming along, as are the Shoppes of Riverton and Old York Village in Chesterfield Township. As Waste Management cleans up the site of the old Morrisville Steel plant across the Delaware River, a moderate-sized development project is becoming an interstate regional one.
No doubt there will be bumps in these roads; the decline of real estate prices nationally is a threat on the horizon, because it provokes a flight of mortgage credit. It works the other way, too, as banks decide to deleverage by reducing outstanding loans; this is the way downward spirals reinforce themselves. And anyone who knows anything about all state legislatures will be skeptical about political cooperation in a state as tumultuous as New Jersey. The Pennsylvania Railroad destroyed the promise of this state once; some other local interest could do it again. Nevertheless, right now Burlington County looks like a real winner, primarily because of effective leadership.
Originally published: Thursday, September 26, 2013; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019