September 8, 2008

Corzine Signs Master Plan


Governor Corzine on Friday signed the Highlands Regional Master Plan, adding his own last-minute executive order tightening protections of key watersheds and promising farmland owners money for buyouts.

Corzine used the shimmering waters of the Spruce Run Reservoir in Clinton as a backdrop while signing off on the RMP. The 400-page document will now serve as the blueprint for the 860,000-acre Highlands. The region includes mountainous portions of Bergen, Passaic and Morris counties and generates water for millions of state residents.

In a final touch, Corzine's 12-point executive order mandated strict curbs on development in areas already showing water- generating problems, and earmarked $10 million to buy development rights from farmers who want to continue working their land.

"Today is a day that we should celebrate New Jersey's strong history of protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and the health of our communities," Corzine said. "New Jersey is blessed with the unique and irreplaceable Highlands region physically beautiful, historically significant and ecologically important."

The executive order also promised to replenish the Garden State Preservation Trust, the pool of state funds used by both the Green Acres and Farmland Preservation programs for land acquisition. It is expected to be exhausted by 2009, and Corzine said he would ask the Legislature this fall to arrange new funding. The $10 million allocation is a separate budget earmark.

Corzine would not say whether the Preservation Trust funds would be raised by a bond issue on the November 2009 ballot or through a water tax, an alternative Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, recently said he planned to revive this fall. McKeon accompanied Corzine to the signing Friday, but he did not mention the water tax in brief remarks.

The governor also made it clear that affordable-housing goals are less important than protecting water quality. He ordered the Department of Environmental Protection and the Council on Affordable Housing to work together and set "reasonable" housing goals given that the RMP will severely curb development.

Corzine pointed out that Highlands water goes to more than 5 million people daily, and he argued that this resource must be protected at all costs.

"There is no economic growth plan or affordable housing plans that are sustainable without water," he said. "If we don't have water, then nothing else works."

Still, critics were not entirely sold on the plan. The environmental groups most active in the Highlands fight the Sierra Club, the Highlands Coalition and the N.J. Environmental Federation refused to participate in the photo opportunity at Spruce Run. Instead, they issued tepid statements of support for the plan.

David Pringle of the New Jersey Environmental Federation said Corzine has previously promised to find a stable funding source for buyouts, but it's still not clear how the Garden State Preservation Trust will be funded. A bond issue may not be feasible because the state is already heavily in debt, he said.

"The Garden State Preservation Trust is bankrupt," he said. "This isn't the first time the governor has committed himself to replenishing it. But is he going to risk the political capital to do it? We'll see."

Highlands farmers are worried about land-sale potential and the prospect of local zoning powers being overridden. They were quick to denounce the RMP signing.

"This will only aggravate landowner issues and create further adverse economic impacts for those who live in the region," said Rich Nieuwenhuis, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

The RMP divides the Highlands into two zones: a 445,000-acre Preservation Area and a 415,000-acre Planning Area. The Preservation Area contains the most ecologically sensitive lands, and the RMP's regulations render large-scale development impossible. Ringwood, West Milford and Kinnelon are almost entirely in the Preservation Area.

Municipalities in the most-critical Preservation Area have 15 months to adjust their master plans to conform with the RMP, or they could lose zoning powers to the Highlands Council. The Council is offering grants to towns to help them conform.

Environmental restrictions are more lax in the less-critical Planning Area to encourage sustainable growth. Towns there do not have to sign on to the RMP, but if they don't, any development must adhere to DEP standards.


What's next

Before adopting the Highlands Regional Master Plan, Governor Corzine issued Executive Order 114, a sweeping directive designed to ensure that the RMP is effective. Among other things, the directive:

* Orders the DEP to restrict permits in areas in the Highlands where there is already a "water deficit."

* Orders the DEP and the Council on Affordable Housing to create "reasonable" housing quotas.

* Earmarks $10 million to begin purchasing development credits from farmers in the Highlands.

* Reauthorizes the Garden State Preservation Trust and identifies it as a future funding source for land acquisition.


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