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Sierra Club Releases Fourth Anniversary Highlands Report Card

Date : Mon, 11 Aug 2008 11:14:03 -0400

For Immediate Release
Contact: Jeff Tittel August 11, 2008 (609) 558-9100

Sierra Club Releases Fourth Anniversary Highlands Report Card Gives Overall Progress on the Highlands a D-

Today the Sierra Club released a new report card for the Highlands in honor of the fourth anniversary of the passage of the Highlands Act. "The grades are down this year," said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "Things are not getting better, they are getting worse. Now we have a Highlands Plan that violates the Highlands Act in at least five different places and undermines the purpose of the act, which is to protect the water supply for more than half the population of New Jersey."

In the report card (attached), the club frankly assessed the role of different state departments and agencies in implementing the Highlands Act and what they have done to either further the region's protections or detract from them. The issues that are raised in the report card have all been addressed in letters, public testimony, and in-person meetings that environmental groups and other members of the public have submitted to the relevant state agencies over the course of the implementation process.

Sadly, the grades are not good, with the overall progress on protections for the Highlands rating only a D-, down from last year's overall D. "The plan that we have right now sides with development and parochial interests over environmental protection and water supply," explained Tittel. "If the governor is serious about protecting the Highlands, he will veto this plan, send the Highlands Council back to work, and come up with funding for open space."

There are at least five places where the current Highlands Plan violates the Highlands Act. These include:

* 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.

* 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.

* Community Development Zones - 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. 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.

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

The Sierra Club is also extremely concerned about the plan's failure to address affordable housing, including both the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) Rules and the recently-signed A500. Under A500 the plan must set aside at least 20% of all residential development for affordable housing - it does not. This leaves the entire region at risk for builder's remedy lawsuits, which could double the number of units built in the Highlands from 20,000 to 40,000 and result in a tremendous impact to water quality and quantity in the region. "The failure of the Council to address this is an outrage," Tittel commented.

Not only does the plan 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 higher than Secaucus, which is being rapidly developed but has an obligation of only 91. "COAH is the hammer the builders are using to break open the Highlands Act," said Tittel.

"The only area where the state is passing right now is the DEP rules," concluded Tittel. "Without the DEP's B-, the overall grade for the Highlands would be an F. The governor needs to step up and turn this situation around. His grade is still an Incomplete - it could go either way."


Highlands Report Card

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) DEP is generally doing a very good job on the Highlands, except for certain loopholes and exemptions - without these, they would have received an A. B-

         Highlands Rules Strong and comprehensive. Loopholes for linear development and a few other things keep them from getting an A. B+

         Loopholes in Rules Most of the loopholes have not been closed. D-

         Highlands Grandfathering Exemptions The DEP has not pulled back any exemptions that were given under questionable circumstances. Luckily most of the grandfathering exemptions will run out on the third anniversary of the bill signing. F


       Water Quality Management

              Planning Rules These proposed rules are extremely important in the Highlands Planning Area, where these rules will be pulling back sewer service areas on thousands of acres of environmentally-sensitive land. Too many loopholes.


         Category 1 Upgrades and Flood

             Hazard Rules Critical streams that are environmentally sensitive were removed upon adoption of the rules. For example, the Pequest and the Wallkill were taken out. This is a major setback for water protection in the Highlands Area. Some important areas were included on the Ramapo, Musconetcong, and others. C-

         Passaic River Total Maximum Daily

              Load (TMDL) Does not adequately address the problems in the Passaic River and has Too Many Damn Loopholes. D

        Ecological Stream Flows The DEP has talked about insuring the integrity of stream flow, especially on the Pequannock River, but the talk has not lead to real action. F

Department of Transportation (DOT) The DOT is still pushing the same tired transportation policies, including attempts at widening or adding capacities to Routes 15, 23, 57, and 94. D-

         206 Bypass This project would involve widening a road in the Highlands Preservation Area. F

         Lackawanna Cutoff This proposed railroad out to the Poconos would promote more sprawl and development in the Highlands. F

Department of Community Affairs (DCA) The secret Housing Task Force with builders writing DCA plans and rules is a dangerous undermining of environmental protection. F

         State Plan No mapping has been done yet. D-

             State Plan - Changes to Mapping Adding endangered species data and others to the State Plan map is movement in the right direction. C

             State Plan - Water Supply Mapping The State Plan does not look at water quality or water quantity and does not even do an analysis to see if growth areas actually have the water to serve them. F

         Sussex Plan Endorsement An attempt by the State Planning Commission to circumvent the Highlands Regional Master Plan. F

         Council on Affordable Housing Unreasonably high COAH numbers have been assessed on some of the most environmentally-sensitive areas in the Highlands, undermining efforts to preserve the region. F

         Residential Site Improvement Standards The Residential Site Improvement Standards have not been changed to reflect development in the environmentally-sensitive Highlands Region. F

         Office of Smart Growth The Office of Smart Growth is trying to justify bad development in the Highlands and hide behind "smart growth." D-

Governor Governor Corzine has not shown the leadership we need from him - if he steps up, this grade could change. I

         Appointments to the Highlands Council There is still no member of the Highlands Council from an environmental or community group in the Highlands. The appointments have been too focused on local elected officials. We've been waiting two years for one appointment. F

         Permit Freeze Because of the delay of the plan and some of the worst exemptions that were granted, the environmental community asked for a permit freeze on major developments until the plan was done. There is no freeze and the bad exemptions that were granted have not been addressed.


         Budget There have been some cuts to the budget this year for Highlands, but given the overall tough financial times, the budget it still relatively positive. B-

Highlands Council Not enough leadership, too much in-fighting. The Council as a whole is more concerned about local political needs than overall Highlands protection; however, there are some excellent members of the Council who really care about the environment and work very hard. D

         Council Leadership The current chair is more concerned with attacking environmentalists than in fixing the Highlands Plan and has taken an arrogant attitude with the public. F

         Public Participation Certain members of the Council never listen to the public. B

         Works Well With Others There is too much in-fighting on the Highlands Council and not enough coordination with other agencies. D

         Staff We believe that the staff has worked very hard and accomplished a lot under very trying circumstances. B

             Staff - Leadership Three executive directors in three years and more than a third of the staff leaving as well shows there is a problem with leadership. The current executive director is trying to undermine the Highlands by playing politics. D-

             Staff - Direction Staff is being directed to justify weakenings in the plan and not to follow the science that had previously driven the plan. D-

         Planning Staff people keep leaving the Highlands Council, tired of the misdirection and in-fighting. D

         Water Quality Management Plan The Council is addressing water quality management plans some of the time, but not enough. C

         Target List of Open Space Acquisition The Council has come up with a list, but it's not public. D

Highlands Plan Three years late with lots of problems and violates the law in certain places. F

         Capacity Based Planning The underlying analysis of how much development and where it should go has not been done. F

         Water Supply The plan does not adequately address future water supply needs within the Highlands and the Highlands Region and what steps are needed to protect both water quality and water quantity. F

         Comprehensive Transfer of Development

             Rights (TDR) Plan There is no comprehensive TDR plan. The plan is going to allow people to transfer out development rights while still building a house, meaning we'll be spending a lot of money to create estates. F

         Addressing Both the Preservation Area and

             the Planning Area The plan treats both equally to some extent and is being used to undermine protections in both areas. D

         Identifying No-Build Zones and Scenic

             Corridors The plan has only identified 19,000 acres out of the 840,000 acres in the Highlands as no-build zones. No scenic corridors have been identified. F

         Clustering The clustering provisions are a weakening to the Highlands Plan that will add to more pollution and will allow for development on septics that exceeds the state's groundwater standards. The provision is also in violation of the Municipal Land Use Law. F

         Redevelopment The Council has severely weakened the redevelopment criteria, allowing towns to come in a play games. D-

         Mapping The plan allows for towns to come in and cut deals for mapping that are not based on science. F

             Mapping - Nitrates The plan sets nitrate standards in a Community Zone that allow for more development and pollution in violation of the Highlands Act. F

             Mapping - Growth Areas Growth areas are not capacity based, but promote growth around areas that are environmentally sensitive or already developed. F

          Buffers Allows for buffers in redevelopment areas that are weaker than what the DEP rules would allow. F

         Affordable Housing The plan does not address affordable housing or the recently-signed A500, leaving the Highlands Plan vulnerable to possible legal challenges. F

Open Space Funding (State Level) The Garden State Preservation Trust (GSPT) is almost out of money and there are no firm plans to fund it in the future. There is a need for a stable source of funding that adequately addresses Highlands needs. D-

Federal Role in the Highlands New Jersey is getting less federal money now, since the passage of the Highlands Conservation Act - a law that was supposed to give us $11 million a year - than we were getting before. The Department of Energy has proposed allowing power lines to cut through the Highlands. F

Legislature Failed to provide open space funding. Also passed the Permit Extension Act, allowing bad development projects to go forward without the need to comply with new environmental regulations. D-

Becca Glenn, Program Assistant New Jersey Sierra Club

145 W. Hanover Street Trenton, NJ 08618

609-656-7612: phone

609-656-7618: fax

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Received on 2008-08-11 08:20:01

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

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