July 11, 2008

Eight New Highlands Protection Rules Proposed


How much more development can the Highlands region support and still guarantee enough drinking water for the 5.5 million New Jersey residents who rely on its waterways and reservoirs?

That was the key question Thursday as the 14-member New Jersey Highlands Council met for the final time before next week's historic vote on the Regional Master Plan.

Some council members felt the plan wasn't tough enough to protect the environment in light of a recent study showing that much of the groundwater in the eight-county mountain area is already stressed by development. But others, including the chairman, say some of those areas still could be safely developed.

"The Regional Master Plan should not make a bad situation worse," said council member Tracy Carluccio, who unveiled eight last-minute amendments to the master plan, each designed to make it tougher to build. The Highlands Council discussed the amendments and will consider them next Thursday before voting whether to adopt the master plan.

That plan will impact some 88 communities in a band of mountainous lands reaching from northwestern Bergen County through Passaic and Morris counties and into Hunterdon's farmlands.

The so-called Carluccio amendments deal with a variety of water- quality issues, ranging from the amount of plant-feeding nitrates allowed in the water in cluster zones to maintaining a standard 300- foot buffer for streams and rivers.

But her most far-reaching proposal was an amendment that would ban development on land where tests have shown there already is a so- called "water deficit" meaning more water is being taken from the ground than is returned through runoff to recharge the aquifer.

The plan's current draft allows water deficit lands to be developed if the builder promises to create drainage schemes that would recharge the aquifer by 125 percent. In other words, a developer has to return more water to the soil than the project will actually use.

A study released last month by the Highlands Council showed that of 183 pockets of water in the region (known as "sub-watersheds"), 114 were deemed to be running at a deficit. In some sub watersheds, these deficits are relatively minor just a few thousand gallons a day. But about four of them are quite severe, running at more than half a million gallons a day, according to the Highlands Council study.

Carluccio says recharging an aquifer can take from one to five years, depending on rainfall and other factors. She says it makes no sense to allow building to take place while the land has a water deficit.

"For the areas that are really the worst, let's not make them worse," she said.

Highlands Council Director Eileen Swan says the Highlands Council wouldn't approve any development plan in a water deficit area unless it was convinced that the project wouldn't be harmful to the water supply.

"Any development that is allowed, first of all, must give back what it takes, plus 25 percent," Swan said.

Council Chairman John Weingart said stopping all development in areas where there is a water deficit "has not been the majority position of the council up until now. We'll see what happens next week."

In an interview after the meeting, Weingart did not endorse Carluccio's tough approach.

Weingart said the master plan "is a very protective act" that will allow some development in the region. But he added that the building that will occur will be "much less" than would have occurred if there was no master plan.

The 400-page plan is loaded with jargon about topography, water quality control and hydrology, and not easily understandable to the average citizen. It divides the 859,000-acre region into a 415,000- acre Preservation Zone, and a 445,000-acre Planning Zone.

The Preservation Zone contains land that is deemed to be of crucial importance to preserving water. The Planning Zone is divided into numerous subzones, some of which will be friendly toward development and others more restrictive.

Affected communities will be directed to modify their local master plans to conform with the plan.


What's next

The Highlands Council will meet Thursday at 10 a.m. in the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown to consider adoption of the regional master plan for the preservation and development of an eight-county mountain area.


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