Atlantic County has been called a lot of things, but one new study has an unexpected description — one of the most “compact” and least-sprawling metropolitan regions in the U.S.

According to the 2014 Sprawl Index rankings, issued this week by the nonprofit group Smart Growth America, the Atlantic City-Hammonton metropolitan area — which the U.S. Census defines as all of Atlantic County — is the “most compact, connected” metro area with a population of less than 500,000 in the country.

Overall, regardless of size, the metro area is also the third most compact and connected metro area in the country, ranking behind only the New York/ White Plains/Wayne metro area in New York/ New Jersey and the San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City metro area in California.

“It is a surprising conclusion,” said Michael Busler, a past fellow at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township. “It’s a little bit at odds with what seems logical.”

The study analyzed development in 193 census-defined Metropolitan Statistical Areas, as well as 11 larger cities, all with more than 200,000 people.

The four factors used to determine the amount of sprawl vs. compactness: development density, including total density of the urban and suburban census tracts; “land use mix,” which includes the balance of jobs to total population and mix of job types; “activity centering,” which includes the proportion of people and businesses located near each other; and street accessibility, measured using metrics such as average length of street block and average block size.

Experts said that while the vastness of the Pinelands, suburban development and commercial development up Route 40 may make the county seem sprawling, in reality much of the population is located only in certain areas.

Daniel Douglas, director of the Hughes Center, said the barrier islands are extremely densely packed and have very small block sizes.

“You can’t sprawl into the ocean,” he joked. “There’s a lot of density, just not a lot of people.”

The mainland areas along Route 9 are less dense, Douglas said, but not by much. Much of Somers Point, Linwood, Northfield, Pleasantville and Absecon are “old suburban” style areas with quarter-acre lots much more densely packed than more recent, sprawling suburbs with winding roads and cul-de-sacs.

Beyond that, said Rich Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College, such sprawl is limited to certain areas.

“Much of it is by design,” Perniciaro said. “If lack of sprawl is a good thing, part of it is intentional. Usually I think zoning laws add to the problem, but in this case it works well.”

Pinelands Commission regulations, he said, “have ‘growth nodes’ in Egg Harbor, Galloway and Hamilton townships, and they were put very close to where the ‘employment node’ was, in Atlantic City. That was done specifically to limit sprawl. The problem we would have had without the Pinelands (Commission) would be sprawl up the parkway and up the expressway.”

Perniciaro said he remembered when the site of the former Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township was considered the limit of development in the area. And while areas have been built up leading into southern Hamilton Township, “for a lot of stores in the Hamilton Mall, the problem has been that there are no rooftops west of there. The market area is pretty much set.”

Another reason that development has been limited to certain areas: sewer and water systems.

“Physically, there are soil conditions and problems with water septic tanks,” he said. “What really drives where people live is where the sewer systems are. That has limited a lot of growth patterns in the county. In Galloway, the sewer system ends at the Ram’s Head Inn. For years, people have wondered why Route 30 hasn’t developed (beyond that), but that’s because of the lack of sewers.”

Douglas, who was on the state redevelopment commission in the 1990s, said that the goal was to design zoning laws to allow for “efficient delivery of services and create a better sense of community, a community of place.’ Atlantic City has a community of place. ... And because of old planning done with small cities with farmland around it, Pleasantville has a little downtown, Hamilton Township has a little downtown.”

Perniciaro said that if there was demand — “if Atlantic City had 100,000 jobs instead of 30,000” — growth may have spread outward to the western part of the county.

“But I don’t think anybody sees the pattern changing anytime soon,” he said.

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