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Sierra Club Releases Highlands Report Card

Date : Fri, 10 Aug 2012 10:25:54 -0400

/ /

For Immediate Release

August 9, 2012

Contact Jeff Tittel, 609-558-9100

Sierra Club Releases Highlands Report Card

Highlands/Protections Earn an "F" with Christie's Weakenings and Rollbacks /*

The Highlands Act has survived to celebrate its eighth anniversary tomorrow despite the efforts of Governor Christie.The administration, the Highlands Council and the Legislature have been enacting policies that roll back and weaken critical protections for the region.The Governor's Strategic Plan opens the region to inappropriate growth while the DEP weakens regulatory protections in the Highlands such as the nitrate dilution model.The Highlands Council's independent and professional staff has been replaced by the Governor's political cronies who will now be charged with rewriting and adopting a new Regional Master Plan (RMP) next year.The Council is discouraging municipal conformance to the RMP in the Planning Area, where conformance is voluntary.The Legislature has passed the Permit Extension Act and legislation that will allow counties and the DEP to add more sewer service areas in the region, opening the Highlands region up to more development and sprawl.The politicians are taking the side of special interests and jeopardizing the drinking water supply for 5.4 million people and our state's largest businesses.The Sierra Club has released its annual Highlands report card underscoring the major threats to this key region.

"Instead of celebrating the eighth 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.This is the Governor's third year receiving an 'F' on Highlands protections.He is beyond sitting in the corner with a dunce cap.We need the citizens of New Jersey to stand up and demand he stop rolling back the protections for our most important resource, Highlands drinking water," said Jeff Tittel, Director, NJ Sierra Club.

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, Legislature's and Highlands Council's polices and actions on the Highlands.The Highlands 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.

Turnover in Council Staff

After stacking the Council with his political cronies and appointing a buddy Chair, the Governor's office orchestrated the ouster of Executive Director Eileen Swan.The Council terminated Ms. Swan to replace her by, at the time Morris County Freeholder, Gene Feyl.Ms. Swan has always been professional, independent, balanced and respects the Highlands Act.She was replaced by someone who is part of Governor's Christie's political machine and will do his bidding.Only one interview was held for the position, with Feyl, and a job listing was not distributed.

The Council's Deputy Executive Director and Chief Counsel Tom Borden resigned out of protest to Ms. Swan's termination.He too was replaced by a former Morris County Freeholder, Margaret Nordstrom.Nordstrom does not have a law degree and the Council is currently being represented by a Deputy Attorney General (DAG) from the Division of Law instead of by an independent Chief Counsel. The Governor has attacked the Highlands and now he wants to put in place a staff that will be a rubberstamp for his anti-environmental agenda.

"The Governor is playing politics with the Highlands.He is taking care of his local pro-development allies in Sussex and Warren Counties, hiring his former political buddies from Morris County and jeopardizing our water supply.Instead of following science he is following political science, putting our drinking water at risk," said Jeff Tittel.

Under Swan's leadership 60 municipalities submitted conformance petitions to adopt the Highlands to the Council.42 of those petitions have been approved by the Council, including 16 in the last year.But for the past two months under Feyl and Nordstrom no municipal petitions have been considered.

These staff changes are especially important as the Highlands Council will be readopting its RMP in 2013.Council members have already indicated that changes will be made.This gives the Councilmembers and staff appointed by the Governor a tremendous opportunity to rollback Highlands protections.

The State Strategic Plan

The Governor's State Strategic Plan is a direct threat to the Highlands Council's authority to develop and implement resource capacity based planning in the region.The Plan usurps the Council's Regional Master Plan and promotes sprawl and overdevelopment.

Under Executive Order 78, the Council is required to implement the Strategic Plan which designates all existing communities in the Highlands plan as "growth areas" and requires more infrastructure such as sewers in those areas to support higher density development.

Permit Extension Act

The Permit Extension Act, passed by the Legislature in June, would push back the expiration dates on builder permits in the majority of the Highlands Planning area and Highlands Centers until 2014.This is the first time the Highlands was included in the legislation, being passed twice before.This bill will allow developers in the Highlands to evade strengthened environmental regulations, public health standards, building codes, and local zoning and ordinances, including those in the process of being changed to conform to the Highlands RMP.The bill has a "Dracula Clause" that would bring back projects that have already expired.The Governor is expected to sign the bill.

"The Dracula Clause in the Permit Extension bill will bring back projects that the Highlands Act was passed to stop.Many of these projects were grandfathered through exemptions and now would come back to life.These projects will not only promote sprawl and overdevelopment in Highlands but will hurt water quality," said Jeff Tittel.

Water Quality Management Planning Delays

Governor Christie signed a bill pushing back the deadline for counties to submit improved sewer service area maps under the DEP's Water Quality Management Planning (WQMP) rules.This type of planning is critical to controlling sprawl and overdevelopment and addressing pollution.The WQMP rules entrust the Highlands Council with the responsibility of working with municipalities and municipal utility authorities in the region to develop plans that remove environmentally sensitive areas from sewer service and regulate developments on septic systems to prevent groundwater pollution.County plans have to conform with the RMP but this law takes the planning authority away from the Highlands Council and turns it over to the DEP.The delay extends outdated plans that will allow bad projects to go forward.

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:

ĚDr. Michael Sebetich, Ph.D. was appointed to serve on the Highlands Council.Dr. Sebetich has a strong background in environmental science and open space protection.

ĚThe Appellate Court issued four decisions upholding Highlands protections, including the RMP planning process, RMP mapping, and the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program.

ĚLocal municipalities can now issue some exemptions after having conformed to the Highlands RMP.

These few positives have been vastly outweighed by negatives:

  DEP stakeholder meetings on the nitrate dilution model are designed     to strip the Highlands of important protections and prohibit full     implementation of the Highlands Act.The rules, which set development     densities in the region, are being rewritten and weakened by special     interests.

  A second project by Tennessee Gas Pipeline was approved by the     Council despite at the time of approval the company's previous     project in the region had 2 open DEP violations and ongoing     sedimentation problems at Lake Lookover in West Milford, proving the     project could not been done without impacts to Highlands resources.    PSE&G has begun pre-construction and vegetative clearing on the     Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line across the region    Appointment of Richard Vohden to the Council despite his public     statements and advocacy to overturn the Highlands Act.    The DEP Waiver Rule went into effect August 1st allowing the DEP     Commissioner to exempt a developer from any portion of any     department rule, including the Highlands regulations.    The Governor continued his attacks on the North Jersey District     Water Supply Commission (NJDWSC), naming political ally Todd     Caliguire Executive Director in June.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.

"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.

We are very concerned that some of the cornerstones of Highlands protections are still not in place. Eight 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    The DEP has not entered into a Memorandum Of Understanding with the     Council for permit and exemption application reviews

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.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 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 Chapter of the Sierra Club
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Received on 2012-08-10 07:25:54

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