Jeff Fucci developed his green thumb in the back yard of his southern Bergen County home, where he grew tomatoes and basil with a view of the cities of Newark, Passaic and Paterson in the distance. As an attorney, Fucci now hopes to take an up-close role in putting a green thumbprint on the redevelopment of New Jersey's cities.
"Community engagement is the only way that a project can take root. In New Jersey, including Newark, we are talking to an educated community of not just the professional people who are coming in, but the professionals who have been there for a long time," said Fucci, 32, an associate at the firm DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole in Teaneck who works with the firm's municipal and litigation groups, which includes involvement in environmental and affordable housing issues.
Jeff Fucci, an associate at the firm DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole in Teaneck, working to encourage environmentally sustainable in development in Newark
"The biggest challenge is to take a place that has an industrial legacy, change it into something better and make sure that the people who are from there benefit from it, including after things are cleaned up," Fucci said.
Fucci's interest in environmental issues was spurred working as a journalist, for non-profit organizations and in government for the erstwhile New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, a state agency designed to balance nature preservation and development in 14 Bergen and Hudson County municipalities that ring the Meadowlands area.
"The interplay of the dynamics of preservation politics - working with different stakeholders, poring over zoning maps, looking into brownfields, or land which was previously used for industry and could be contaminated - I saw how important it was, and I got into it," Fucci said, noting how he began to move from previous communication roles to legal work. "I saw that major decisions made in the area were made with counsel, and I got very interested in redevelopment work."
After getting his law degree at Vermont Law School, one of the best centers for the study of environmental law in the nation, Fucci found his way to DeCotiis, which does work with many municipalities across New Jersey that are still dealing with the effects of lingering post-industrial environmental contamination.
Newark, New Jersey's largest city, shares this difficult legacy. The former Diamond Alkali plant in the city's Ironbound section produced the herbicide Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War, leaving behind the toxic byproduct of dioxin. The gutted broken brick pile at the site of the former Westinghouse Electric plant near the Broad Street train station is a reminder of the PCB contamination that has hindered development in the area.
Fucci notes that while a lawyer is neither a planner nor an architect or environmental specialist, a good attorney can bring people together who can work together, answer questions and get things done.
"Federal Superfund environmental cleanup sites and brownfield sites are complicated and need remediation. But the outcome is better if people in the community are involved and if they want what is coming on the other side of it. Ownership is very important," Fucci said. "A lot of communities have open space and housing needs, and leaving an area environmentally dirty is never the answer."
Successful redevelopment of cities with environmental concerns can lead to a positive revitalization cycle, according to Fucci.
"When you invest in a community by cleaning up a contaminated site, you automatically increase the property value of an area," Fucci said. "People are going to want to invest in the community, which increases the tax base. With an increased tax base, more money can be spent on schools and roads, further increasing property values as more people move in. It's a cycle that goes forward. And it's a cycle that can include new development and affordable housing. You don't want to see a situation where people can't live in their own community. If you mix the housing, and leave room for people of different economic status and lifestyles, it can work."
Fucci, remembering the first green lesson he learned in his own backyard, is trying to spread these ideas around New Jersey. During a recent talk with members of the Rutgers Law School Environmental Law Society in Newark, he spoke about the concept of environmental justice, where a cleaner landscape includes helping the people in both New Jersey's cities and suburbs. For Fucci, the law can be used as an effective leveler, a way to spread equitable green growth around the state.
"Keeping up with federal and state regulations is not easy, but you have to protect the future," Fucci said, noting that he wants to use New Jersey's regulatory and legal framework to work with municipalities such as Newark to encourage environmentally sustainable development. "You have to learn how to do things in order to be good at it, and you can serve the public at a law firm by helping to move things forward. We do it every day."