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Sierra Club Releases Highlands Report Card

Date : Wed, 10 Aug 2011 13:24:01 -0400

  For Immediate Release
August 10, 2011 Contact Jeff Tittel, 609-558-9100

Sierra Club Releases Highlands Report Card Highlands Protections Earn an "F" with Christie's Weakenings and Rollbacks

Seven years after the Highlands Act was passed, Governor Christie is trying to repeal the law. The Governor is taking the side of special interests and jeopardizing the drinking water supply for 5.4 million people and our state's largest businesses. Many of Governor Christie's closet allies and biggest contributors are tied to developers in the Highlands region. The Governor is attempting to repeal the Act and pave the region over to pay them back for their support. The Sierra Club has released its annual Highlands report card underscoring the major threats to this key region. Governor Christie has drawn a bull's eye on the Highlands and is working to repeal the region's protections through inappropriate appointments to the Highlands Council and weakening regulations at the DEP, including the proposed Waiver Rule.

"Instead of celebrating the seventh anniversary of the Highlands Act, today we have to stand up to the Christie administration and fight again to protect our water supply. The region is in more jeopardy now than at any time since the passage of the Highlands Act," said Jeff Tittel, Director, NJ Sierra Club. "We are giving the administration an 'F' for Highlands protections but the real grade is 'scary.' This is a time to recommitment to the fight to the save the Highlands instead of a celebration of the Act's anniversary."

This year, we rate the actions on protections for the Highlands an F. This grade is not a reflection of the Highlands Act itself, but rather the Governor's polices and statements on the Highlands, recent actions of the Council lead by the Governor's appointees, the weakening of regulations in the region, and the continued push for utility infrastructure projects that will destroy resources and create scars across the Highlands landscape. The region provides drinking water to 5.5 million state residents and our three largest economic sectors. Everything from Goya beans and M&Ms to Tylenol and Budweiser beer is made with Highlands water. Efforts to undermine and repeal Highlands protections could impact New Jersey's water supply.

"The Highlands are more important to us in New Jersey than Yellowstone and Yosemite because you cant hike to Yosemite from New Brunswick and 5.4 million people don't get their drinking water from Yellowstone. What the Governor is doing hurts our economy and environment and jeopardizes our water supply for future generations," said Jeff Tittel.

Governor Christie has appointed individuals to the Highlands Council who have publically spoken out against the Highlands Act and delayed Highlands protections in their own communities. At a townhall meeting in March, Christie implied that the Democratic legislature is blocking him from repealing the Highlands Act and these Council appointees are the only way he can weaken Highlands regulations.

Two dangerous Christie appointments are now serving on the Council, Hunterdon County Freeholder Rob Walton and Roxbury Mayor and newly-appointed Highlands Council Chair Jim Rilee. At their first Council meeting they set a troubling precedent by blocking Hackettstown from opting into the Highlands plan, the first time a municipality has been turned down by the Council. Christie's appointees are so anti-Highlands they have blocked towns seeking to adopt the Highlands plan from doing so.

Twenty-six municipalities have adopted the Highlands plan so far, including some communities where conformance is voluntary. An additional 33 towns are waiting for the Council to approve their plans. However, Christie appointees and other council members could block this progress and weaken the Highlands plan.

Highlands funding will be the same as last year after Christie dramatically slashed the funding from $12 million to $4.4 million and cut $18 million in grants for municipalities in the process of adopting the Highlands plan. Removing the funding doesn't make sense unless you want to kill the Highlands Plan and weaken protections in the Highlands.

The Governor is also working to weaken the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Highlands regulations to allow for more sprawl and subdivisions. The DEP has proposed an overreaching waiver rule that would allow the DEP Commissioner to exempt a developer from any portion of any department rule, including the Highlands regulations. The DEP is also cutting protections for category one waterways and weakening regulations for stormwater and water quality planning which will impact parts of the Highlands.

The Governor continues to delay the implementation of the Water Quality Management Planning Rules, even after the rules were upheld in a recent Appellate Court decision and the USEPA has requested their implementation as soon as possible. These rules are more than 13 years in the making and their further delay affects towns in the Highlands Planning Area.

Major unneeded energy infrastructure projects continue to threaten the Highlands region and the Governor has issued a revised Energy Master Plan that calls for more transmission lines and gas pipelines. Three pipeline projects have been proposed in the Highlands in the last three years and the administration and Highlands Council have not taken a stance against any, despite impacts to water supplies. The Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Upgrade will go underneath the Monksville Reservoir and Transco's Northeast Supply Link will cross the Raritan River and watershed lands. The Susquehanna-Transmission line continues to threaten the resources of Highlands as well.

Governor Christie has attacked the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission (NJDWSC) as part of his campaign to dismantle Highlands protections and has already pressured two Commissioners and the executive director to retire. The NJDWSC has been an important ally in the preservation of the Highlands and Christie wants to take over the Commission because they have worked to protect the watershed from overdevelopment and the politically connected developers that want to build projects there are not happy.

We are very concerned that some of the cornerstones of Highlands protections are still not in place. Seven years later:

* We still don't know how much water is in the Highlands for development or that can be exported for growth in the state.

* We have not yet clearly identified enough no-build areas for preservation.

* There is still not an environmentalist from the Highlands on the council.

* We do not have a stable source of funding for open space acquisition to compensate Highlands landowners. While no Highlands landowner has been turned down by a preservation program since the Act was passed, we need to establish a water user surcharge to compensate Highlands landowners. This surcharge could also fund the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program to compensate municipalities for lost tax revenue when open space is preserved and grants to municipalities for planning documents needed to adopt the Highlands plan. The Republican legislators in the Highlands are the biggest stumbling block to getting that water user surcharge in place, actively opposing such a mechanism

* Highlands conformance still does not equate to State Plan Endorsement

* The DEP has not entered into a Memorandum Of Understanding with the Council for permit and exemption application reviews

In this year's report card, we have identified some positive things that have happened in the last year. Unfortunately, the positives have been overshadowed by some outrageously bad things.

On the positive side:

. 26 towns and 2 counties in the Highlands have adopted the Highlands plan and 33 conformance petitions are pending. However, Christie's funding cuts, attacks on the Highlands, and Council appointments may delay the conformance process.

These few positives have been vastly outweighed by negatives:

* Governor Christie's budget cuts, Highlands Council appointments, and secret stakeholder meetings with special interests are designed to strip the Highlands of important protections and prohibit full implementation of the Highlands Act.

* The Susquehanna Roseland power line is being pushed through

* One Tennessee Gas Pipeline Project is already under construction and two more pipelines are being proposed in the Highlands that will directly impact Highlands water supplies: the Monksville Reservoir and South Branch of the Raritan River

* Christie's appointments to the Highlands Council are undermining the conformance process and weakening protections.

Since its inception the protections for the Highlands have been plagued by compromise and weakenings. The Highlands Act itself was a series of compromises. Now Governor Christie wants to virtually repeal the Act by weakening its implementation drastically.

"The Highlands Act was passed to curb overdevelopment in the region to protect the drinking water for more than half of the people in New Jersey," said Jeff Tittel. "Governor Christie's policies put that drinking water at risk. These cuts and rollbacks will not only undermine preservation in the Highlands they will mean more sprawl and therefore more pollution in our waterways."

Kate Millsaps, Program Assistant NJ Sierra Club 145 W. Hanover Street Trenton, NJ 08618 609.656.7612 (f) 609.656.7618  <http://www.newjersey.sierraclub.org/> www.newjersey.sierraclub.org  

Received on 2011-08-10 10:24:01

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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