July 18, 2008

Highlands Plan Passes but Has Its Detractors ; Corzine Must Sign or Veto It


The Highlands Council on Thursday adopted a controversial Regional Master Plan that aims to protect North Jersey's premier water-generating lands while allowing some development in the 859,000-acre region.

History was made and a blueprint was drawn for the future when the council voted 9-5 to endorse the huge, 400-page plan at the end of a rancorous, eight-hour meeting at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morris Township. The council meets next week to memorialize Thursday's vote, then will send the plan to Governor Corzine, who has 30 days to sign it into law or veto it.

The master plan affects communities in a mountain region stretching from Mahwah and Oakland in Bergen County down into Hunterdon County's farmlands. Water from the area serves state residents including those in most of North Jersey.

"We have a good plan, and I'm proud of it," Highlands Council Chairman John Weingart said as he cast the ninth and final vote in favor of the plan.

Not everyone feels that way. Environmentalists and farmers dislike the plan, but for different reasons. Builders apparently don't like the plan, either. A look at some of the arguments:

Environmentalists: They're unhappy that a last-ditch effort to tighten numerous environmental regulations in the plan failed on Thursday. Pro-environmental council members put forth nearly a dozen amendments Thursday, including one to limit development in areas where there is already a groundwater shortage.

Another set of amendments that failed aimed to reduce the levels of nitrates in groundwater. Limiting nitrates, a byproduct of septic systems that is harmful to humans, reduces the number of homes that can be built on a property.

"They literally voted to let people drink septic," said David Pringle of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

Builders: The New Jersey Builders Association scored a victory when several of the amendments went down, including those that would limit cluster developments. But they're concerned that they will be building a lot fewer houses in the region.

Council member Glen Vetrano, a Sussex County freeholder, came to the meeting wearing a Builders Association lapel pin and voted against the plan partly because towns would not be able to meet their affordable-housing quotas as mandated by the state.

"We've done what New Jersey does best," he said sarcastically. "We have regulated despite the consequences."

Homeowners: Property owners still retain the right to build a single-family house on their lot even if it's located in the most protected region, under one of 17 exemptions in the RMP.

Farmers: They're happy that the amendment limiting nitrates in cluster zones got shot down, because that gives greater development potential to their land. But farmers looking to sell their land to the government are unhappy because the RMP contains no stable funding source for buyouts. Last month, council staffers said they were looking to buy 162,000 acres over 10 years for $1.3 billion.

"A simple water tax would have solved the problem," said council member Kurt Alstede, a Morris County farmer, who voted against the plan. "This plan will do little more than make the Highlands a colony for the greater political powers who reside outside of it."

Some members of the audience at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum clapped when the vote was complete, while others sat with their heads down, clearly disappointed. Jeff Tittel, the executive director of the activist New Jersey Sierra Club, said he would ask Governor Corzine to veto the Regional Master Plan, which will be sent to him next week.

"The governor better tell people to buy bottled water, because this plan will not protect the drinking water for 5 million people," Tittel said.

The Highlands Council's preliminary reports indicate that a majority of supply streams are already stressed by demand or are polluted. A report issued by the Highlands Council last month showed that 114 of the 183 sub-watersheds were running already running at a deficit meaning more water was being taken out of the ground each day than was being recharged.

One of the RMP's most controversial elements is a provision that allows development to go forward in areas where there is a water deficit. Environmentalists had argued it makes no sense to allow building in areas where there is already a water shortage.

The RMP contains a softer restriction that requires builders to present a drainage plan that promises to recharge the aquifer by 125 to 200 percent.

"It's terribly disappointing," said Julia Somers, executive director of the Highlands Coalition environmental group. "We have 114 of 183 watersheds that have deficits, and they're going to make them worse."


Vote breakdown


John Weingart (D), chairman and former DEP assistant commissioner

Jack Schrier (R), vice chairman and Morris County freeholder

Elizabeth Calabrese (D), Bergen County freeholder

Tahesha Way (D), Passaic County freeholder

Mimi Letts (D), former Parsippany mayor

William Cogger (R), Chester councilman

Erik Peterson (R), Hunterdon County freeholder

Janice Kovach (D), Department of Community Affairs

Scott Whitenack (D), Morristown Planning Board


Kurt Alstede (R), Morris County farmer

Glen Vetrano (R), Sussex County freeholder

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper

Deborah Pasquarelli (R), Warren County Planning Board

Tim Dillingham (D), executive director, American Littoral Society


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