July 24, 2008

Inching Toward a Resolution on the Highlands


The continuing saga of the Highlands entered a new chapter this month with the approval by the Highlands Council of the long- awaited regional master plan. It would be nice to say after four years and a long road of good intentions there is a document worth celebrating.

But hardly anyone is happy with it. Predictably, environmentalists say it doesn't go far enough to protect the invaluable watershed that serves 5 million people in this state. And just as predictably, builders, property owners, farmers and some local officials say it goes too far: restricting or banning development that could bring in ratables and bolster the economy in an area that is ripe for growth.

So there was no holiday declared when the council voted on the plan last week. The vote was 9-5, hardly unanimous. Even environmentalists want Governor Corzine to reject the plan and force the Highlands Council to do more work on it.

Most of this battle has gone on below the radar screen of the majority of New Jerseyans. We count on water coming out of our faucets, but we don't think all that much about how it gets there and what steps have to be taken to make sure that it continues to be there in the future.

The major step that has to be taken is to protect the watershed from overdevelopment. That's a no-brainer. New Jersey is already the most densely populated state in the nation. We have erred repeatedly in the past on the side of overdevelopment, and look at all the sprawl, traffic congestion and pollution we have to show for it.

In recent years, we've gotten better as a state in preserving more of what little open space is left. But the Highlands represents a whole different level of preservation, one that finally forces home rule to take a back seat to the greater good.

A revolutionary concept

That in itself is a revolutionary concept in New Jersey and one that is long overdue. Whether a particular town in the watershed approves a housing development or a golf course or a shopping mall can be seen as an individual decision that affects only the town. But what about the porous ground that is paved over, or the runoff with pesticides that ends up in the nearest stream or the increased demand for water supply?

All of those side effects of development can have far wider consequences. That was the philosophy underlying the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, signed in 2004 by Gov. Jim McGreevey.

Time was and is of the essence. The New Jersey Highlands Coalition, composed of environmental advocates and other groups, notes that some 3,000 acres of the Highlands' forests and farmlands are lost to development every year. From 1986 to 2002, more than 15,000 acres of Highlands forests disappeared. Farmland has been lost at an average of 1,700 acres per year in recent years.

And demand for water already exceeds availability in some places in the Highlands. That's why how much water is available should severely restrict growth in much of the Highlands region, which extends from northern Bergen County to Hunterdon County. Seven counties and 88 towns are involved in some way.

Now it's up to Corzine to accept or reject the plan, and he has not said what he will do, although he has always been a strong environmentalist. If it takes a little more time, relatively speaking, to make the plan stronger, it is worth it, since so much is at stake.

More protection sought

The New Jersey Highlands Coalition wants the governor to insist on more protection. The coalition said last week the plan "does not adequately protect Highlands water, streams or farmland soils. It encourages the region's groundwater to become polluted in a way that could have a profound impact on the public's health."

Some property owners are angry that they will lose the value of their land if they can't develop on it and if they are not compensated for the loss, something the state originally promised to do. But current financial problems, coupled with the need to provide open space funds statewide, have blocked that promise.

Someday, someone will write a history of the attempt to preserve the Highlands, with all its fits and starts and with all the clashes of the interests involved. I hope that author is sitting on top of a Highlands peak, overlooking some gorgeous valley and taking a drink of clear, clean water as he or she writes.


Mary Ellen Schoonmaker is an editorial writer and columnist for The Record.

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