Friday, October 31st, 2014
Half-True
New Jersey Sierra Club
Says New Jersey is "losing 50 football fields of open space to development every day and the more we develop upstream the more flooding we have downstream."

New Jersey Sierra Club on Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 in a press release

New Jersey Sierra Club claims New Jersey loses “50 football fields of open space to development every day”

A single football field is not an unusual sight, but try to imagine 50 of them being overrun with development -- every day.

That’s what the New Jersey Sierra Club says is happening daily in the Garden State. In a press release posted on its website Sept. 6, the environmental group tossed out that statistic when discussing the effects of development on flooding.

"We are losing 50 football fields of open space to development every day and the more we develop upstream the more flooding we have downstream," according to the press release. "We need to not only limit development but we need to (make) development with less pavement and impervious cover."

PolitiFact New Jersey found that football may be alive and well, but developers in New Jersey aren’t seeing as much playing time as they used to. The environmental group is right that development increases the risk of flooding, but construction activity has declined nationwide.

First, let’s explain how "50 football fields" translates into acres, and where the Sierra Club received that figure.

New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel argued that the group’s statistic doesn’t count the two end zones. However, the National Football League identifies the "field" as including both end zones.

Based on the league’s measurements, a football field represents about 1.32 acres.

Tittel also told us the statistic was based on research done by Rutgers University’s Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis. The latest data on open space loss available from that center comes from a July 2010 report detailing land-use changes in New Jersey through 2007.

According to that report, an average of 16,061 new acres were developed in 2007, or about 44 acres per day. That level of development equates to about 33 football fields of development per day.

So, based on that data, the Sierra Club’s estimate is off by 17 football fields, or about one-third.

But here’s the larger mistake made by the Sierra Club: that estimate of 33 football fields refers to development as of four years ago.

"You can’t compare ‘07 to today," said Dominick Paragano, president of the New Jersey Builders Association. "It’s a different economy."

Updated statewide growth figures will be available later this fall, but data already shows a sizable decrease in development in Ocean County between 2007 and 2010, said Rutgers University professor Richard G. Lathrop, one of the authors of that land-use report. Ocean County was one of the faster-growing counties as of 2007.

Two other data sets also demonstrate the downturn in development activity in New Jersey: the number of housing units authorized by building permits, and the number of construction jobs, according to federal and state statistics.

Many developers aren’t even focused on the sprawl-like development targeted by the Sierra Club. More builders are looking at redevelopment opportunities in urban areas, said Kevin Tartaglione, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the development division at Somerset County-based Advance Realty.

Tittel argued that residential development may be down, but commercial development, highway-widening projects and infrastructure development are still under way.

But with fewer development options available to landowners, the Somerset County-based New Jersey Conservation Foundation has been able to preserve more land in recent years, according to executive director Michele Byers.

Whereas the New Jersey Conservation Foundation completed between 15 and 20 transactions annually in the early part of the decade, it completed about 40 in 2009 and then roughly 50 in 2010, she said.

But Byers said the point behind the Sierra Club’s statement is still legitimate, because the potential for development in New Jersey remains.

"We are really working hard to ramp up as much preservation as we can before we lose the opportunity," Byers said.

On the Sierra Club’s second point about flooding, the group is right. Two professors confirmed to us that development heightens the risk of flooding, because there are fewer areas to absorb the water.

"So that water has to go someplace," said Tulane University associate professor Stephen Nelson, who teaches a course on natural disasters.

Our ruling

The Sierra Club claimed "50 football fields" are developed in New Jersey every day, increasing the danger of flooding. Flooding can be a side effect of development, but the group’s statistic doesn’t reflect the steep decline in construction activity during the past four years.

Tittel argues his organization is using the most recent data available, but that still doesn’t make it right. We rate the statement Half True.

To comment on this ruling, go to NJ.com.