September 9, 2008

A Watershed Moment

GOVERNOR Corzine's signing of the Highlands Regional Master Plan last week is a giant step for the state and for the protection of its environment and water quality for generations to come.

There was no way that the governor could have pleased everyone affected by the master plan, which covers 860,000 acres in 88 communities, including mountainous parts of Bergen, Passaic and Morris counties. Development will be severely restricted in core parts of the region to maintain the quality of water that it generates for millions of New Jersey residents.

Environmentalists, farmers, developers and some local officials all had problems with the draft plan, some saying it was too strong and others not strong enough. Some had urged Corzine to reject it and send it back to the Highlands Council for more work.

But given all the conflicting interests, the final plan almost inevitably had to be a compromise. The governor was right to go ahead and sign it, after listening to all sides and issuing a companion 12-point executive order that covers some of the major concerns. Corzine's executive order mandates strict curbs on development in areas that already have water shortages a crucial addition and authorizes $10 million in funds to buy development rights from farmers who want to continue working their land.

It has already been four years since the initial legislation preserving the Highlands was signed, and it is past time to begin putting the protections into effect. The final plan was overdue. Some 3,000 acres of the Highlands' forests and farmland have been lost to development every year. Demand for water already exceeds supply in some parts of the growing region.

That's why it's time to act.

Towns in the most sensitive areas, including Ringwood, West Milford and Kinnelon, now have more than a year to conform their master plans to the regional plan. Other towns in the region are urged to comply, but are not required to do so. All of these communities should realize that what some may see as an intrusion on their planning and zoning rights is actually a plan for the greater good. The water quality and therefore the health and safety of 5 million New Jersey residents is at stake.

This state's lack of foresight to preserve and protect the environment in the past is legendary. Finally, this environmental myopia is being corrected.

Corzine's executive order also reauthorizes the Garden State Preservation Trust, the essential fund that is used to preserve open space and is now on life support and almost bankrupt. Its renewal could be accomplished through a bond issue on the November 2009 ballot or through a water tax, which has also been suggested.

The fund has been extremely successful in the past and must be renewed. Both a bond issue, with the state in so much debt, and a water tax are controversial proposals. But New Jersey's dwindling supply of open space and its desperate need to preserve parkland, farmland and historic sites must take precedence.

Both Corzine and the Legislature must be willing to put the interests of the state ahead of their own political interests in deciding how to best renew the preservation trust with a stable source of long-term funding.


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