October 13, 2008

Critics Voice Concerns on Highlands Master Plan

By Lee, Evelyn

FOUR YEARS AFTER the passage of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, the Highlands Regional Master Plan was ratified earlier this month by Gov. Jon S. Corzine. But the plan remains deeply flawed, according to critics, who are taking issue with everything from heavy restrictions on municipalities and developers in the Highlands Region to a failure to protect the region's water resources.

The master plan, which the New Jersey Highlands Council drafted and approved in July, seeks to safeguard the environmentally sensitive areas of the Highlands Region, which includes more than 859,000 acres that encompass 88 municipalities and parts of seven counties in the northwestern part of the state.

"This hurts, it hurts everybody," Doug Fenichel, a spokesman for Red Bank-based homebuilder K. Hovnanian Homes, says of the plan. "It makes it more difficult to build and makes it more expensive to build." K. Hovnanian, the state's largest homebuilder, is currently reviewing the document while waiting to see how towns will comply with the plan, according to Fenichel. "We'll be talking with different towns where there may be opportunity," he says.

The Walsh Company LLC, a Morristown-based real estate and construction services firm, saw one mixed-use project that it had worked on in Sussex County fall through because of the Highlands regulations, says Patrick Eichner, the company's senior vice president of development. Three-quarters of the parcel designated for the project was deemed undevelopable under the Highlands Act, and the property lost the majority of its original value after the law was passed, according to Eichner. "It ended up being too small of a development," he says. "It wasn't really worth...anyone's while to go through the entitlement process."

To reinforce protections under the master plan, Corzine has called for the reauthorization of the Garden State Preservation Trust to provide funds for the purchase of open space, as well as the allocation of $10 million to the Highlands Development Credit Bank, which oversees a transfer-of-development-rights program for the region. The bank will buy credits from property owners in areas where development is prohibited and sell them to developers in areas where building is permitted, according to the New Jersey Highlands Council.

The governor has also mandated that the state Department of Environmental Protection restrict permits for new development that would deplete the water supply in already constrained areas of the Highlands Region, as well as requiring the Council on Affordable Housing to work with the Highlands Council to reduce affordable housing obligations for towns in the Highlands region.

But environmentalists say the plan is too weak to adequately protect the Highlands Region, which provides drinking water for more than 60 percent of New Jersey's residents. "There are some areas that have already seen problems with pollution and overdevelopment," says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club in Trenton.

More than half of the region already has a water-supply shortage, but "many of those areas where people don't have enough water are going to get more development," Tittel says. The plan weakens buffers for redevelopment and allows high-density housing to be built on farmland, he contends.

Meanwhile, legislators such as Assemblyman John McKeon (D- Essex), Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow (R-Warren and Hunterdon) and Assemblyman Michael Doherty (R-Warren and Hunterdon), have sponsored bills to address various concerns with the plan. Karrow, for example, has proposed the Highlands Tax Stabilization Fund, which would allow for direct property-tax relief to compensate municipalities for the decline in property value as a result of the Highlands regulations. The bill is currently in the Assembly's Environment and Solid Waste Committee, according to the state Legislature.

"This hurts, it hurts everybody. It makes it more difficult to build and makes it more expensive to build."

Doug Fenichel, a spokesman for K. Hovnanian Homes

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Copyright Journal Publications Inc. Sep 15, 2008

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