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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.
"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
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
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
"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
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
These few positives have been vastly outweighed by negatives:
- Pipelines continue to cut across the Highlands region. Tennessee Gas
"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
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,"
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