Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver spoke recently during NAIOP New Jersey’s annual Public Policy Forum.
By Joshua Burd
State officials are weighing their options for modernizing the Department of Community Affairs, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said last week, from electronic permitting to the potential to allow municipalities to privatize code enforcement.
Far less certain is how they will tackle more high-profile issues such as affordable housing, shared services and the tax credit programs that have fueled development in recent years.
Oliver, who took office in mid-January alongside Gov. Phil Murphy, addressed those policy concerns on April 25 during an event hosted by NAIOP New Jersey. As both the lieutenant governor and the head of the Department of Community Affairs, she highlighted initiatives that impact everything from day-to-day construction to major long-term legislative issues.
The Essex County Democrat told attendees that DCA is examining how to streamline permitting, reviews, inspections and approvals for construction. One option is to expand the agency’s online platforms, she said, noting it already has an electronic plan review system that enables design professionals to submit plans online and get quick feedback.
“We’re looking into the possibility of electronic permitting,” Oliver said. “After plan reviews are complete, the next progression would be to provide permits back to you electronically.”
The DCA is also in the process of moving code officials, licensing and certifications to electronic systems and is looking into the benefits of other proposals, such as regionalizing code offices, incentivizing shared services and giving towns the option to privatize code enforcement
“Those are all things that we currently have under review at DCA,” Oliver, who serves as the agency’s commissioner, said to a crowd that included developers and service professionals.
NAIOP hosted its Public Policy Symposium last week as Murphy and Oliver marked their 100th day in office, following Gov. Chris Christie’s two terms. Oliver said “there have been some major accomplishments” under the new administration, but pointed to several major issues that are still facing New Jersey.
Chief among them is creating zoning for affordable housing development, which the state judiciary has overseen since 2015 after ruling that the executive branch had failed to do so. Oliver said it was a positive sign that judges have brokered some 200 settlements between municipalities and housing advocates, but lamented the fact that it was in the courts to begin with.
“At DCA, at this point, our role is simply monitoring what is happening in communities, posting on our website what outcomes are and the implications that they have,” she said.
“Our administration has adopted a position that we’re sorry that this has moved front and center and the courts continue to be in control,” Oliver added. “We feel that it should have been a deliberate kind of collaboration between the state and the court and that we should have been able to have the input of our local communities, mayors and their governing boards and just the community at large to solve this.”
She added that “we are committed to the creation of affordable housing” and that “our position is that this is something that we’re going to have to tackle during this administration, but we’re eight years behind where we were.”
Oliver ran through several other initiatives of the three-month-old Murphy administration. They include supporting legislation to restore the popular Urban Enterprise Zone program in five cities in which it expired last year. She also pointed to the new Opportunity Zone program under the recent federal tax reform, which would use tax incentives tied to unrealized capital gains to encourage investment in areas with high poverty.
The federal government has approved 169 such zones in New Jersey, Oliver said, adding that it “could really be an effective tool for us in New Jersey to stimulate economic development.
Oliver also raised the idea of shared services among municipalities, a frequent topic for NAIOP. While some have called for using municipal aid as a way to compel local governments to share services, she said it was still unproven as to whether doing so would make a noticeable dent in the state’s property tax crisis.
“If you go to the League of Municipalities and you listen to the mayors from all across the state, there are many mayors that are convinced that the state should not anticipate, as a future public policy, property taxes reducing significantly because of shared services,” she said. “So I think that’s a conversation that is still under review in the state. I do believe there is some efficacy to sharing services.”
The lieutenant governor followed a panel that included development executives — Stephen Santola of Woodmont Properties, Clark Machemer of Rockefeller Group and Dave Gibbons of Elberon Development Group — along with state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Anthony Pizzutillo, NAIOP New Jersey’s government affairs consultant. Much of the panel highlighted two major initiatives for the association: reforming the state’s archaic liquor license laws and protecting the current statute governing tax abatements in redevelopment zones.
NAIOP is playing defense when it comes to the latter, the developers said, noting that payments in lieu of taxes or PILOTs offer certainty and help plug financing gaps. Several lawmakers in recent years have floated proposals that would add requirements, such a mandating that municipalities share PILOT revenue with their school districts, that would make them unattractive to builders and stifle downtown redevelopment.
Meantime, they said the state’s current liquor license system would be critical to encouraging new mixed-use development. Decades-old limitations have caused the prices of licenses to skyrocket in certain municipalities, but NAIOP has argued for creating new opportunities for smaller operators.
Both initiatives are key to downtown and transit-oriented development. For Oliver, whose former legislative district included Montclair, the discussion appeared to hit home.
“Montclair is what it is today because of Midtown Direct, mixed retail, commercial and residential buildings in the center of town and the ability of restaurants to thrive and to create a walkability community,” she said. “You can go to Montclair any day of the week, any month, on Saturdays and Sundays, that is what you see.
“I think the panel hit the nail right on the head. The state also has to take a look at how it can assist communities in rebuilding their downtown economies.”