The New Jersey Highlands Act
Margaret I. Rohde
In northwestern New Jersey lies a mountainous area of sweeping woodlands, lush valleys, scenic vistas, and sloping hills known as the Highlands of New Jersey. It is abundant in lakes and streams, and provides vital habitat for many wild animals. The region has many uses, from farming to ironworks, and a rich history reaching as far back as the Revolutionary War Era.
The region provided economic benefits even early on, and continues to do so to this day. It has been recognized for its environmental significance for over one hundred years and, in that time, there has been great debate over how best to preserve and save this precious region from the grasp of development and degradation.
On September 19 of 2003, New Jersey's Governor, James McGreevey, assembled the Highlands Task Force. Its 19 members were to come up with a plan that would advise the Governor and Legislatures on the best actions toward Highlands conservation, and how best to protect local water resources while still allowing for necessary economic growth in the region. After consideration, the Task Force came to the conclusion that a Preservation Area in the Highlands should be created which would include and protect a core area of the region's most susceptible and vital land. In March of 2004, Governor McGreevey announced his plans for an act which would be based on the recommendations of the Highlands Task Force. This act would secure an area of 350,000 acres in the Highlands of New Jersey on which there could be no further development, and would therefore protect the land and drinking water supply of over three million people.
Though the idea of the act made environmentalists overjoyed, it faced heavy opposition from builders and land owners who harbored concerns over property rights and the use of their own farmland. In one public hearing, tempers raged out of control to such a point that troopers were called in by state officials. Part of the reason for this outrage and concern was the fact that the original version the act did not answer the question of just how extensive the development regulations would be (for example, whether or not a property owner could build a shed on his own land) and did not outline exact boundaries for the core preservation area. Despite opposition, however, the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act was written, and signed into law on August 10 of 2004.
When the act was first passed, 5,000 acres of the Highlands were being lost to development per year. Largely, these development projects consisted of condominiums and McMansions. Further development of land in the Highlands would result in the pollution and depletion of the drinking water supply, upon which half of the state relies as its main source. This is the primary reason for the act, and for preventing further development of the protected areas. Despite the passage of the act, however, some contractors were given exemptions from the outlined development regulations because they already had at least one state construction permit before the act was first introduced in March of 2004. Therefore, not all development was halted by the act, a fact that upset many conservationists.
Previous to the Act's formation, dislike for further development had already begun. In one such example, voters in West Milford did not want a town-house development built that had been proposed by a building company. The residents in opposition to the new development, who feared for the depletion of their water sources, saw it as the first test for the Highlands Act. The building company tested the area for its water supply, and said that the amount would be sufficient for the 280 town-houses it planned to build. An environmental group known as Skylands Clean, however, reported that this estimate was far greater than the true amount of the water supply. It was also at this point in time that the wells of many West Milford residents had already begun running dry - a fact that only solidified their case against the builders. The commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection was urged not to agree to plans for the development, to be named Eagle Ridge, until a Master Plan could be established by the Highlands Council. The builders then sued the DEP, but lost their Highlands Exemption on August 10, 2007.
One of the largest problems surrounding the initial signing of the Highlands Act was that in order to please developers and farmers, Governor McGreevey also singed a bill that would expedite development in other, mostly suburban areas of the state. The Governor believed that to save some areas from development, others had to be subjected to it. Conservationists immediately feared that this secondary bill would cause even more development in already overdeveloped areas like Bergen County, and even development in some of the more remote areas. One aspect of this anti-conservationist bill mandated that if the state did not act on environmental permits within 45 days, and come to a decision on whether to allow development in another 45 days, then consent for the planned development would be automatically granted to the contractor. Environmentalists worried that for this reason, and because building permits would then be easier to obtain, contractors would submit so many plans for consideration that state agencies would become overwhelmed, and forced to grant permits without review. The Governor, however, believed that increasing state workers would solve this problem. Conservationists also feared that much of their power to prevent undesirable development from taking place would be taken away. It could be said that many felt that with the passing of the Highlands Act, and the bill to expedite development outside of the protected Highlands area, Governor McGreevey and the state of New Jersey took one step forward and two steps back.
Many farmers in the Highlands were not and are not happy with the Highlands Act. They believe it is unjust because though continue to pay taxes on their land, they feel they cannot use it, and cannot sell it to developers as they had planned. Property values dropped after passage of Highlands act, and buyers were scared off. Though land owners can sell their property to the state as preserved land, their profit is not nearly as high as it could have been if they were to sell it to a developer. For this reason, many are now in debt, after having borrowed money in the amount they believed they could repay by selling their property. In essence, many feel that their land was taken from them by the state, and some are even suing over the issue.
In early 2008, a coalition of more than fifty thousand environmental groups urged Governor John Corzine to fortify the Highlands preservation plan to further prevent development, which was still continuing, and set higher protection for the highlands water resources through an executive order until a master plan could be finalized. They reported that 65 percent of the watershed areas in the Highlands were unable to fulfill the demands for drinking water, and had greatly decreased flow levels. The master plan, completed in 2006, was to be finalized in the spring of 2008.
On July 17 of that year, the New Jersey Highlands Council adopted the Regional Master Plan after a 9-5 vote. The Plan adds to the Highlands Act by clearly outlining regulations related to resource protection, conservation of agricultural landscapes, and economic growth and development. It is a foundation on which future decisions of land use planning can be based, and establishes a framework of information that explains possible results of land use, which communities can consider when planning. 1 Despite its seemingly all-inclusive regulations, there were many who opposed the Master Plan. They did so because they believed it failed to truly protect drinking water supplies, and catered to developers and local interests to too great an extent. For these reasons, the amendments suggested by the council members who opposed the plan would have completely banned further development in areas where water was at all becoming scarce. Sadly, many of these amendments did not pass, and some that did pass were not as strong as was hoped for. Scores of environmentalists felt that the plan allowed for too much development and degradation of the water supply, and was a disappointment after so many years of hard work.
Part of the plan that gained approval, however, was the estimation that 1.3 million dollars would be needed for the purpose of preservation in areas that needed it most, though the state's funds for this purpose were nearly nothing. The highlands council would also require a great deal of money to afford transfer-of-development-rights programs, which would provide money to property owners and developers who could no longer build on protected land. After the plan was adopted, however, environmentalists pleaded with Corzine to veto it - they felt it did not live up to what it should have been.
Since the Highlands Act was passed in 2004, there has been a near constant struggle to uphold its regulations, and perhaps even more importantly, to allocate funds toward its goals of preservation. When it was first signed into law, 110 million was supposed to have been put aside to provide for the conservation of areas under the act's protection. Since then, however, only 5.1 million in federal funds has been put aside, in part because the Bush administration spent a large amount of money on the war in Iraq, and also because a large sum went instead toward issues such as fighting wildfires in the west. Many now hope, however, that with the more environmentally minded President Obama in office, greater attention will be paid to the allocation of funds toward the preservation of the Highlands. If not, then the region, which is important for countless reasons and to so many, may become irreversibly tainted by the ever-reaching hand of development.
What the Highlands Act should do: With higher preservation funds, abatement cost will increase, benefit will increase (since the water supply remains clean and undiminished, and tourism is still brought to the area), and development ( and pollution/degradation) will decrease.