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Sierra Club Highlands Report Card F Grade

Date : Fri, Aug 9, 2013 at 11:33 AM


For Immediate Release

August 9, 2013

Contact Jeff Tittel, 609-558-9100

Sierra Club Highlands Report Card F Grade

Weakenings and Rollbacks Continue Under Gov. Christie and Current Council

This weekend the Highlands Act will mark its ninth anniversary in the face of attempts to dismantle this landmark legislation for protecting our drinking water. The administration, the Highlands Council and the Legislature have been enacting policies that roll back and weaken critical protections for the region. The Highlands Council has slowed the conformance process down to a crawl, the Governor has yet to outline a plan for funding open space purchases, and the Legislature is opening the area up for development under the Economic Opportunity Act and Permit Extension Act. Sitting on the Governor's desk is a bill that would open Highlands forests up to logging. The Governor's political cronies now serve on the Highlands Council and as senior staff and in March appointed a Chief Counsel who had opposed the Act. Next year they will be tasked with rewriting and adopting a new Regional Master Plan (RMP). 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.
 This will result in more pollution in our waterways and more flooding. While some areas have improved there are still major threats to the region. The Sierra Club has released its annual Highlands report card underscoring the major threats to this key region. The Club has released a report card every year since the Act was passed.

"Nine years after the passage of the Highlands Act we are fighting to save the region all over again. Between the Governor's actions and the bills in the Legislature the Highlands is more at risk since any time since the passage of the law. This means the drinking water for more than half the state's population and one of our last remaining open spaces is threatened," said Jeff Tittel, Director, NJ Sierra Club.

Jeff continued, "There have been a lot of roll backs and delays but things could get worse in the next year as the Council and administration review the RMP, DEP rules, and Water Quality Management Plans. Next year may be the most critical year for the Highlands and its protection since before the Act was passed. This could become the de facto repeal of the Highlands Act, especially without open space funding. The Highlands Act was passed to prevent the death of a thousand cuts. Now we are seeing the Highlands Act itself suffer the death of a thousand cuts as each year it is being chipped away a little more."

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 5.4 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.

Delays and Rollbacks at the Highlands Council

The Council is now considering abandoning the adoption of the Highland Land Use Ordinance to achieve conformance with the RMP in favor of a weaker Checklist Ordinance approach. The Council had been reworking the Land Use Ordinance some months and discouraging towns from adopting the protections while those edits were taking place. Now it seems they are looking to get rid of the document altogether for certain communities. The Checklist Ordinance was first used for the Preservation Area in Green Township, which is already publically preserved open space and is now being expanded for other use in other communities, most recently Roxbury. The Checklist Ordinance is weaker than the Land Use Ordinance and does not codify protections at the local level. To date only one community, High Bridge has adopted this document that puts the Highlands protections in place at the local level and this was done under Swan's leadership.

In the past year only three towns have had their municipal conformance petitions approved by the Council, and these had been weakened from the original submittal. Randolph Township was granted four separate Highlands Center Designations under their revised petition, including an area that is in water deficit. Hopatcong also received a Highlands Center Designation. Conformance in both the Planning and Preservation Area has slowed dramatically. Roxbury conformed using the weaker Checklist Ordinance approach described above.

"It is critical for municipalities to get the Highlands protections in place at the local level through the conformance process and that is why recent trends at the Council are so disappointing. We need more action by the Council on petitions in both the Planning and Preservation Areas and more action at the municipal level when it comes to adopting the Highlands Land Use Ordinance," said Kate Millsaps, Conservation Program Coordinator, NJ Sierra Club.

This is in stark contrast to the progress made under the leadership of Eileen Swan, the Council's former Executive Director. The Council has received 60 municipal conformance petitions to adopt the Highlands plan. During Swan's tenure 42 of those petitions were approved by the Council in less than 3 years. About 20 municipal petitions are awaiting Council approval.

Four meetings have been cancelled in the past year, including the meeting that was scheduled for this month.

"The Highlands Council has become such an anti-Highlands extremist group there is not even enough votes to give a grant to Sussex County to do agritourism and ecotourism," said Jeff Tittel.

Turnover in Council Staff

After Eileen Swan was fired last year, the Council's Deputy Executive Director and Chief Counsel Tom Borden resigned out of protest to Ms. Swan's termination. He was replaced by a former Morris County Freeholder, Margaret Nordstrom in the position of Deputy Director in May 2012, leaving the Chief Counsel position vacant until this March. The position was filled by Andrew R. Davis a land use attorney was has advocated for the repeal of the Highlands Act.

These staff changes at the Council will have a significant impact on the future of the Highlands region. The Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP) is up for re-adoption this year and could be weakened significantly under staff leadership. Council members have already indicated that changes will be made. The Council is also in charge of preparing Wastewater Quality Management Plans that conform with the Highlands RMP in both the Preservation and Planning areas. These plans determine where sewers lines can be installed, ultimately directing future growth.

Open Space Funding

The funding from the voter approved 2009 Bond Act is dwindling. The Governor has yet to announce a plan to fund open space purchases in the future as the DEP has scrambled to put together $100 million for the next year from past projects that never went through, remaining 2009 funds, and interest on loans.

The use of existing sales tax revenue for open space programs did not win legislative approval and was opposed the Governor and leadership in the Assembly in both parties. The Senate Environment Committee held a hearing on the Water User Fee bill to establish a sustainable funding source that would directly benefit the Highlands region, but the bill has not moved out of committee.

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.

"Some areas have gotten better while others have gotten worse. The biggest disappointment has been the Legislature. The Legislature has gotten much worse when it comes to the Highlands between the Dracula Clause, the Economic Opportunity Act and logging on public lands. They even failed to overturn the DEP Waiver Rule," said Jeff Tittel.

Economic Opportunity Act

The Economic Opportunity Act S2583/A3680 targets some of our most environmentally sensitive areas, most critical areas for water supply, and last remaining open spaces. The entire Highlands Planning Area would be opened up for development, even though two-thirds of that region is environmentally sensitive. This includes sensitive areas 50 feet from Spruce Run Reservoir. The bill would subsidize development in some of the most important areas of the state for water supply- next to reservoirs, above water supply intakes, near aquifer recharge areas and well protection areas. This bill would subsidize sprawl development that will directly impact drinking water quality.

The Strategic Plan calls for growth areas in the Highlands and Pinelands to receive more infrastructure to support higher density development. This bill will now finance those infrastructure improvements, including sewers. Higher density developments would be serviced by new wastewater community treatment facilities or package plants, which will have serious impacts on water quality.

"Between the State Strategic Plan turning these areas into growth areas and now the Economic Development Act to fund that growth is a one-two punch to promote development in some of the last remaining open space areas in New Jersey," said Jeff Tittel. "Many of these areas are environmentally sensitive forested lands without adequate sewer and water capacity. We are promoting growth in the some of the last remaining wild places of New Jersey."

Permit Extension Act

The Permit Extension Act, signed by the Governor in September, pushes 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. Developers in the Highlands can now 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. There is a "Dracula Clause" that brings back projects that have already expired.

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:

   - An Appellate Division Court upheld the Highlands Council's approval of
   plan conformance for High Bridge and Clinton in a lawsuit with the Fair
   Share Housing Center.
   - An Appellate Division Court upheld the valuation of Highlands
   Development Credits (HDCs) as determined by the Highlands Development
   Credit Bank. Bi County Development challenged the $2.36 million dollar
   valuation for their 262 acres and lost.
   - The Baker Residential Property, also known as Mase Mountain, in
   Jefferson Township was preserved. This 835 acre track was previously
   slated for development and has long been a preservation priority in the
   Highlands region.

These few positives have been vastly outweighed by negatives:

   - Pipelines continue to cut across the Highlands region. Tennessee Gas
   Pipeline and Transco both installed new pipeline expansion projects in the
   Highlands in the past year, impacting water quality, forest cover, and air
   - PSE&G continues construction of the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission
   line across the region
   - The DEP Waiver Rule has been in effect the past year, allowing the DEP
   Commissioner to exempt a developer from any portion of any department rule,
   including the Highlands regulations.
   - The State Planning Commission approved changes to the existing State
   Plan mapping to allow more development in a sensitive region of the
   Highlands. A 413 acre tract in Mt. Olive important for water supply and
   containing critical species habitat and historic resources was
   re-designated from environmentally sensitive, Planning Area 5, to suburban,
   Planning Area 2. This re-designation will allow for commercial development
   of the site outside of the Highlands Act regulations.
   - The DEP approved a proposal to take millions more gallons of water out
   of the Wanaque Reservoir each day, by increasing the "safe yield" of the
   largest reservoir system in the state.
   - The Legislature approved a bill that would require forestry plans be
   written for all state parks, opening up our Highlands forests for
   commercial logging. Forestry activities are exempt under the Highlands
   RMP. The bill is now on the Governor's desk.
   - 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.
   - Logging is occurring in Weldon Brook Wildlife Management Area and this
   could be expanded in to other areas. A plan is currently being written for
   the Peaquanock watershed.

"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. Nine 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. The State's Water Supply
   Master Plan has not been updated in almost twenty years.
   - We have not yet clearly identified enough no-build areas for
   - There is still not an environmentalist from the Highlands on the
   - 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.

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Received on 2013-08-09 06:33:00

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