July 17, 2008

Vote on Controversial Highlands Plan Today


The Highlands Council meets today for what could be an historic vote on a proposed regional master plan to safeguard the state's premier watersheds in North Jersey.

A furious week of last-minute lobbying has pitted environmentalists looking to tighten environmental restrictions against pro-development forces looking to weaken it. That lobbying effort has produced 12 amendments now on the table, dealing with a range of technical issues involving both water quality and the Highland Council's powers to enforce the master plan.

Most of the state's environmental groups say the plan isn't tough enough to protect the water supply in the mountain region and have urged the council to vote against it. On the other side of the aisle, pro-development forces were keeping quiet on Tuesday.

Environmentalists fear that the 400-page plan contains too many loopholes that would encourage overdevelopment in the 859,000-acre Highlands region, which covers seven counties and 88 municipalities from Mahwah in Bergen County down into Hunterdon's farmlands.

Chief among their concerns is language in the latest master plan draft that allows development even in areas where there is a so- called "water deficit" meaning more water is being taken from the ground daily than is being recharged.

"As we are seeing today with skyrocketing energy prices, failure to plan properly for the future can lead to crisis," warned David Epstein, the president of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. "We need a strong Highlands Regional Master Plan to properly protect our water supply, but only with strengthening amendments will it be strong enough to help us avoid future crises."

"The plan .... risks folks in the Highlands drinking their own septic, and folks downstream being flooded and not having a plentiful, clean, affordable water supply," said David Pringle, co- chairman of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

"The Governor and Council will be on the hook if this plan isn't strengthened, let alone weakened."

The region provides water for millions of state residents and is the water source for the local Passaic Valley Water Commission serving the cities of southern Passaic County and parts of Bergen County.

Amy J. Whilldin, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Builders Association, declined to comment on the plan until after today's meeting.

The Highlands Council will consider each proposed amendment today before voting on the plan. It takes a simple majority of eight of 14 members of the Highlands Council to adopt any of amendments or the plan.


What's next

The Highlands Council meets to adopt the Regional Master Plan today at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morris Township. The meeting begins at 10 a.m.


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