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Highlands Council's Failure to Address Affordable Housing Jeopardizes New Jersey's Water Supply

Date : Mon, 04 Aug 2008 12:04:03 -0400

For Immediate Release
Contact: Jeff Tittel August 4, 2008 (609) 558-9100

Highlands Council’s Failure to Address Affordable Housing Jeopardizes New Jersey’s Water Supply

The Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP) is fatally flawed. The plan, recently adopted by the Highlands Council, does not account for a change in the Highlands Act brought about by the recent signing of A500. Under A500 the RMP must set aside at least 20% of all residential development for affordable housing – but the plan does not address affordable housing at all. “The most important issue facing the Highlands is how we’re going to address COAH and affordable housing,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The failure of this plan to mention that is a loophole so large, you could drive a bulldozer through it.”

Governor Jon Corzine has until August 23rd to veto the plan, sending the Highlands Council back to work. Without a veto, the entire Highlands region will be open to a builder’s remedy lawsuit. As a result the 20,000 units allowed in the plan and the 4,000 unit affordable housing component will be compounded by another 20,000 units from builder’s remedy, doubling the amount of development in the Highlands to 40,000. This would have a tremendous impact on water quality and quantity in the Highlands.

Had the plan included provisions for affordable housing, towns would be protected from these lawsuits. “The failure of the Council to address this is an outrage,” commented Tittel. “The problem isn’t A500 – it’s the Highlands Council.”

Not only does the RMP fail to take into account the provisions of A500, it also does not mention the current COAH rules or include a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on COAH. The current version of the COAH rules that are out for public comment assess astronomical numbers to areas in the Highlands that are not now and are not supposed to in the future see much growth. For instance, Ringwood, which is in the Highlands Preservation Area, has an affordable housing obligation of 122, despite the fact that it is building less than 10 houses per year. This obligation is lower than Secaucus, which is being rapidly developed but has an obligation of only 91. Likewise, West Milford, also in the Highlands Preservation Area, has an affordable housing obligation of 220, although it is building less than two dozen houses per year and is located in the forested portion of the Highlands Preservation Area, which has extreme limits on development. This obligation is higher than the 190 for Hoboken, which is seeing massive development in highrises.

“COAH is the hammer the builders are using to break open the Highlands Act,” said Tittel.

The current COAH rules would also require that inclusionary development must be built at 6 to 8 units per acre density in growth areas or 4 units per acre density in non-growth areas in order to be protected from builder’s remedy lawsuits. The Sierra Club thinks this is extortion of communities to force high-density development into the Highlands region, and the impacts if this were allowed would be devastating. This could bring back some of the worst projects in New Jersey, such as Windy Acres next to Round Valley Reservoir in Clinton Tonwship.

“What we see here is a deliberate attempt by COAH to set up the Highlands for a builder’s remedy lawsuit, break open the Highlands Act, and pave over the Highlands,” Tittel added. “COAH is the Conspiracy Organized Against the Highlands.”

Last week the Sierra Club sent a letter to Governor Corzine calling on him to veto the Highlands Plan, both for its failure to address affordable housing and for the five or more places in which the plan violates the Highlands Act. These include the provisions for clustering, development in water supply deficit areas, nitrates in community development zones, nitrates in clusters, and violation of buffers in redevelopment areas. [For more detailed information on these provisions, see attached press release from February 5, 2008.]

“Because of the failures of this plan, all of the redevelopment areas that the Highlands Council has identified in the Preservation Area will become high density builder’s remedy projects,” concluded Tittel. “In fact, we are concerned that the failure to address affordable housing could even lead the courts to throw out the whole Highlands Act, making it open season for overdevelopment throughout the region.”

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Attachments (2)

July 30, 2008

Governor Jon Corzine Office of the Governor PO Box 001 Trenton, NJ 08625

Re: Highlands Regional Master Plan

Dear Governor Corzine:

The Sierra Club is deeply concerned about the Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP) and its failure to address affordable housing in any meaningful manner. This concern is even more acute because of the COAH rules and, more importantly, A500.

As you know, A500 is legislation that changes the way we build affordable housing in New Jersey. The act amended the Highlands Act to include a significant change – that all regional master plans have to include 20% affordable housing in residential development where economically feasible.

The Highlands RMP does not reflect this important change in law, including no set asides, no planning, and no requirements for affordable housing in the 88 communities in the Highlands region. This failure puts the Highlands Act, the RMP, and our ability to set environmental protections in the Highlands in jeopardy and puts the plan at risk for a builders’ remedy lawsuit.

The RMP assigns development for the region without assessing any affordable housing obligations or where and how those obligations could be built. We believe that this alone is a serious enough flaw in the plan to warrant a veto.

In addition, however, because of the numerous weakenings of the plan, more growth will be allowed in the Highlands, which in turn will raise the affordable housing obligations. Building in areas in deficits and allowing for more development, which adds more pollution to groundwater, therefore, both directly impacts water quality and quantity in the Highlands and indirectly causes even more development through the raising of affordable housing obligations in those municipalities and for the Highlands overall.

The current version of the COAH rules that are out for public comment assess astronomical numbers to areas in the Highlands that are not now and are not supposed to in the future see much growth. For instance, Ringwood, which is in the Highlands Preservation Area, has an affordable housing obligation of 122, despite the fact that it is building less than 10 houses per year. This obligation is lower than Secaucus, which is being rapidly developed but has an obligation of only 91. Likewise, West Milford, also in the Highlands Preservation Area, has an affordable housing obligation of 220, although it is building less than two dozen houses per year and is located in the forested portion of the Highlands Preservation Area, which has extreme limits on development. This obligation is higher than the 190 for Hoboken, which is seeing massive development in highrises.

We are concerned that these high numbers, along with the weaknesses in the plan – especially on redevelopment and map amendments – will be used as a loophole large enough to drive a bulldozer through and will be used to force high-density housing into the middle of the Highlands, especially the Preservation Area, under the guise of redevelopment and builders’ remedy lawsuits. We believe that the failure of the Highlands Council to sign a Memorandum of Agreement with COAH, on top of these other failures, is an extremely serious flaw.

The current COAH rules would also require that inclusionary development must be built at 6 to 8 units per acre density in growth areas or 4 units per acre density in non-growth areas in order to be protected from builders’ remedy lawsuits. We think this is extortion of communities to force high-density development into the Highlands region, and the impacts if this were allowed would be devastating. This could bring back some of the worst projects in New Jersey, such as Windy Acres next to Round Valley Reservoir in Clinton Tonwship.

The plan could allow for 20,000 units of housing in the Highlands, which brings with it an obligation of 4,000 affordable units. With the problems in this plan opening the door for a builders’ remedy suit, it would be another 20,000, doubling the total amount of development going into the Highlands region. An additional 40,000 units added to the region would have a tremendous impact on the protection of water supply and natural resources in the Highlands.

The Highlands Act itself was a compromise, and the RMP has now been compromise after compromise. It has been compromised to death, and we are concerned that in its current form, it will compromise the water supply for 5 million people. The plan is weaker than the Highlands Act in at least five places and undermines the protection of clean water in New Jersey. It is also seriously flawed because of its failure to address affordable housing and A500. For all of these reasons, we urge you to veto the plan and send the Highlands Council back to work.

I would be happy to discuss this issue further with you at any time. Please feel free to call me at (609) 558-9100.

Sincerely,

Jeff Tittel Director, New Jersey Sierra Club

For Immediate Release
Contact: Jeff Tittel February 5, 2008 (609) 558-9100

Sierra Club Criticizes Highlands Plan, Calls for Changes

The Highlands Act was passed in 2004 to restore, enhance, and protect the quality of Highlands water, which is so vital to New Jersey’s overall water supply. The draft of the Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP) recently released by the Highlands Council, however, focuses on protecting development interests, despite the adverse impacts on water quality and quantity in the region. The state must act to fix the deficiencies in the plan – and address continuing degradation that is happening in the absence of a completed plan – if we are to preserve our vital water resources. “This plan sides with development over environmental protection and parochial interests over water supply. With this plan, the governor is trying to expand his monetization plan – he’s selling out the Highlands,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

The new version of the RMP is actually worse than the original draft released in 2006. Rather than being a comprehensive master plan like the Highlands Plan, the proposed RMP is more like the State Plan – fuzzy, with no clear standards or benchmarks, and loopholes big enough to drive a bulldozer through. The big questions that the Sierra Club and other environmental groups asked three years ago have not been answered. The plan still lacks a proper capacity analysis to determine how much growth the region can sustain, how much water is actually available for future development in New Jersey and in the Highlands region, and where growth can go. There is also a continued failure to examine the relationship between water quality and water quantity. The plan does not analyze the impact of Highlands water on New Jersey’s economy, its impact to ecosystems in the state, or other downstream uses. Finally, there is no section detailing how the RMP will address Governor Corzine’s Global Warming Initiative or the Global Warming Response Act – in fact, not only will the plan not contribute to the state’s anti-global warming programs, it will cause a major increase in global warming by adding 87,000 acres of mostly forested land to growth areas.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) also recognizes that a Highlands Plan that maintains the status quo is not good enough and that the plan needs to be strengthened. At a Senate Environment Committee meeting Tuesday, DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson said of the plan, “It’s good science, not great science. I believe we are on a path to make the plan stronger.”

There are more than half a dozen places where the draft plan violates the Highlands Act and weakens environmental protections and two dozen more where the language is fuzzy enough to allow similar violations, depending on interpretation. Further, the Memorandum of Agreement that the Highlands Council wants to sign with the DEP calls for the DEP rules to be “harmonized” with the Highlands Plan. In order for this to happen, the DEP would have to weaken its rules on clustering, minimum lot sizes, and sewers in the Preservation Area to fit the provisions in the draft RMP. This is a flagrant violation of the Highlands Act, which is very clear that DEP regulations should be the baseline standards, and that any “harmonizing” must be in the other direction – with the DEP rules being enhanced to meet the Highlands Plan.

For example:

* Community Development Zone – The new plan adds 87,000 acres, which represents 15% of the Highlands Preservation Area, to the Community Development Zone (CDZ). As a result, these areas will get fewer environmental protections, and they will be targeted for growth without looking at the environmental impacts. Further, towns are allowed to play Let’s Make a Deal, adding more land to the growth areas based on politics, rather than on science.

* DEP Regulations in the CDZ – The CDZ provisions would weaken existing DEP regulations, allowing more development, more water withdrawal, and smaller stream buffers – only 75 feet, instead of the current 300 feet.

* Water supply – Unlike the original draft of the RMP, the new plan allows development in areas that are already at a water supply deficit – which more than 60% of the Highlands is – but the change is based on a fantasy solution, rather than on reality. The plan specifies that a development can go forward as long as within five years after building, the developer will be able to engineer a 25% increase in recharge to the site. Unfortunately, the concept of adding recharge in the Highlands is easier said than done. Because of the complex geology of the Highlands, recharge takes 50 to as many as 100,000 years, depending on the specific aquifer, and there is no way this can be reduced to only five years.

* Nitrate model for septics – The nitrate model used by the plan averages nitrate pollution over an entire watershed, rather than looking specifically at the most densely populated areas. Therefore, the water being used by a particular community may have a much higher level of pollution than the watershed average, meaning that the water in that community may not be safe, even if the average pollution level for the region meets standards for human health. In addition, the model fails to factor in background nitrates coming off of farmlands or lawns or what falls from the sky (nitrates make up .03% of our rainwater due to pollution from Midwestern power plants). Because of these flaws, the model allows for densities two to four times greater than the densities prescribed by DEP’s science-based rules, adding sprawl and pollution to the Highlands.

* Clustering – The clustering provision allows farmers to develop their property in high-density clusters while continuing to farm the remainder of the land. High-density housing creates a disproportionate increase in pollution levels – when density is doubled, pollutant loads are squared. Therefore, high-density housing, combined with runoff from farms, will create a large increase in the amount of pollution going into New Jersey’s streams and rivers, a clear violation of the Highlands Act.

* Sewers – Under the clustering provisions, sewers or package plants can be built in the Highlands Preservation Area for new development, even though the Highlands Act itself excludes any new sewers that are not required by public health and safety issues.

* Adjacency – Under this plan, sewers can be extended through adjacency if an area is next to an existing sewer service area. This provision was also included in CAFRA, resulting in the sewers traveling down Route 9 in Ocean County one development at a time. The same thing will happen in the Highlands. This is a recipe for sprawl creeping down our valleys.

* Redevelopment – The redevelopment provisions have been weakened to allow more redevelopment, even in areas that do not have existing water and sewer lines.

* Transfer of Development Rights – The plan allows property owners to TDR most of their property, while still being allowed to build one house. This will create a situation where a lot of public money is being used to subsidize the construction of large estates, adding more pollution and sprawl to the Highlands.

According to the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, failure to protect the Highlands will cost the people of New Jersey $100 billion in additional water treatment and treatment facilities over the next 50 years. In addition, the state’s three largest industries – food processing, pharmaceuticals/chemicals, and tourism – are dependent on a continued, plentiful supply of water. As the governor continues to warn of the state’s financial woes, we cannot afford to make a mistake with such a high price tag.

“Instead of arguing about whether the glass is half empty or half full, we should be questioning why it isn’t brimming with pure, clean Highlands water,” concluded Tittel.

##########

Becca Glenn, Program Assistant New Jersey Sierra Club

145 W. Hanover Street Trenton, NJ 08618

609-656-7612: phone

609-656-7618: fax

image002.jpg

Received on 2008-08-04 09:10:01

New Jersey Sierra Club, 145 West Hanover St., Trenton, NJ 08618, USA
tel: 609 656 7612, fax 609 656 7618
or email Nicole Dallara, Outreach Coordinator, at nicole.dallara@sierraclub.org

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