October 15, 2018 | ° F

Professor discusses 40 years of land use controversy

In a state with more than its share of toxic waste sites, the question of where to put them is never an easy one. But according to a University professor, the list of things people do not want in their backyards includes public building projects. 

University graduate students and professors gathered Wednesday night on the College Avenue campus for a lecture about research surrounding controversial building projects called locally unwanted land use, or LULUs.

Frank J. Popper, a professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said LULUs are defined as public projects that are unwanted at the local level but needed, or at least wanted, at the regional and national levels.

He said LULU issues have affected the New Brunswick community in the past. Twenty years ago, Robert Wood Johnson Hospital decided to expand into an area near Somerset Street, which was once home to a large and vibrant Hungarian-American community.

“This, in addition to some other factors, was what helped contribute to most of that community dispersing,” he said.

He said University facilities are not currently considered LULUs, but in the coming decades, the expanding University could decide to connect the College Avenue and Douglass campuses.

Popper said his past studies of LULUs concluded that there is no grand solution to the problem. Instead, he said LULU issues tend to go away over time, as new technological and scientific advances make certain LULUs obsolete, citing pest houses as an example.

“Before germs were known to be the cause of illness in the late nineteenth century, [pest houses] were essentially dumping grounds for people with contagious diseases to be sent to die,” Popper said. “Nowadays, no place in most of the world has them anymore.”

Tony Nelessen, a professor in the Bloustein School, said leaving a LULU issue to just sort itself out with time can be dangerous, especially when the land might be being used for potentially radioactive or biohazard purposes.

Nelessen said the town of Old Bridge, N.J., has a superfund site, which contains toxic waste and also reports unusually high cancer rates.

He said many Old Bridge residents suspect the two problems are connected.

“The Old Bridge … superfund site has been sitting there for years, and it just keeps getting worse,” said Nelessen, Director of Undergraduate Planning, Public Policy, and Public Health Program Director. “The site was eventually ignored, and the immediate controversy went away, but the site is still there.”

Nelessen said superfund sites are pieces of land placed into a federal list of areas that have high priority for potential cleanup because of high contamination levels. Though they are technically federally funded, the money never seems to be provided, he said.

Popper said environmental justice movements have played a role in raising awareness of the fact that dangerous LULUs affect minorities, immigrants and low-income people more than others because of their locations, but the movements are often looked down upon because they are perceived as pessimistic.

“They are often thought of as looking for bad stuff to happen”, he said.

Popper said the environmental consequences and potential future consequences of LULUs could often linger much longer than expected due to political process, using the nuclear waste storage facility in Yucca Mountain in Nevada as an example.

“Harry Reid, when he first entered Congress, based his career on opposing Yucca Mountain,” Popper said.

George Mason, a Bloustein School graduate student, said the presentation overlooked the issue of where to put affordable low-income housing.

“Professor Popper did not have the time to go into that topic, but I wish he did,” Mason said. “Even though that could be beneficial to the community at large, for the people who currently live or work there, such a project would be a LULU as far as they are concerned.”

Popper said he is working on three academic pieces on LULUs, first about the LULU phenomenon’s history, basic arguments both for and against LULUs and specific types of LULUs.

The environmental consequences of LULUs will impact how future generations will judge the present, he said.

“Our descendants are going to hate us,” Popper said.

By Wilson Conde

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