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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 12, 2000. All rights reserved.

Citizens for the Sourlands

E-mail: NicolePlett@princetoninfo.com

At 564 feet, Sourland Mountain is not much of an

exclamation

point on our landscape. Less than an awesome peak, it’s a hard rock

ridge that traverses three counties. But at the heart of this most

densely populated state, the unspoiled mountain and its surrounding

forest region — known as the Sourlands — could be compared

to a sleeping giant in our midst. There are few residents of

west-central

New Jersey who know how to find them, and fewer still who take

advantage

of their recreational opportunities. So little known are the

Sourlands,

that those who do know and love them fear they may be swallowed up

by suburbia before the public wakes up to what it has lost.

But the terms of engagement are changing, thanks to the efforts of

the small but feisty Sourland Planning Council, currently preparing

the first grant application for an environmental inventory and

planning

study of the entire Sourland Mountain region, to be funded under New

Jersey’s newly-created Smart Growth Program.

"Central New Jersey needs open space. The Sourlands need

protection,"

says Jerry Haimowitz, who has served as president of the Sourland

Planning Council since 1997. "The purpose of the Smart Growth

grants is to help municipalities implement the goals of the New Jersey

State Plan. Among the goals of the state plan, is to promote regional

planning, environmental preservation, and to prevent sprawl."

The group is working to make its application by October 1, with a

budget request of somewhere between $200,000 and $400,000.

"Because

we are a regional project, we tend to rise in the rating system,"

Haimowitz adds, "and that improves our chances for funding."

Stretching across some 60 square miles, dissected by three counties

— Mercer, Somerset, and Hunterdon — and affecting five

townships,

the Sourlands is known as the Bermuda Triangle of New Jersey. Located

along the major growth corridor between metropolitan New York and

Philadelphia, the greatest obstacle to its planned growth has been

the fact that, in planning terms, Sourland Mountain does not exist.

Because it extends through Hillsborough, Montgomery, Hopewell, East

Amwell, and West Amwell, eight political jurisdictions had a piece

of the Sourlands picture, but nobody could see the whole.

Sourland Mountain is the spine of the Sourlands. Less than 600 feet

at its highest point, it stands between the two most prominent natural

areas in the state, the Highlands to the north, and the Pinelands

to the south. The Sourlands (as defined by the Sourland Planning

Council) span an area from the Delaware River in the west, to the

Raritan in the north, and the Millstone River and D&R Canal to the

east. Protected until now by simple geography, the citizen’s council

fears that natural characteristics may not be enough to protect the

Sourlands from encroaching suburban sprawl much longer.

A natural haven that all but swallows up two large county preserves

(see accompanying story), the Sourlands are the site of a bevy of

irreplaceable resources — a mature forest that comprises the

largest

contiguous forest in central New Jersey, headwater streams for eight

vital water sources, and equally vital "perched wetlands"

(highland wetlands that constitute stream headwaters). Its critical

habitat shelters endangered populations of birds and reptiles that

include the Long-Eared Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, and Wood Turtle, as well

as a complement of plant life. Strong arguments for its preservation

lie in its abundant and as yet unexploited resources for recreation,

and historic and cultural resources that include preserving the

Revolutionary

War landscape.

Once safely rural, the Sourlands were already undergoing intense

suburban

development pressures in the 1980s, when a handful of concerned

citizens

asked themselves if anything could be done to guard against patchwork

growth.

In April, 1986, a small group of people living in the Sourland

Mountain

area met in the dining room of one of its members and decided to form

the Sourland Regional Citizens Planning Council. "The name we

chose was a mouthful — but accurate," says founding member

Andrea Bonette, who still serves as the group’s treasurer. Earlier

this year the group officially changed its name to the more manageable

Sourland Planning Council.

Under the leadership of the organization’s founder and late president

Robert Garrett, the group went on to compile, write, and publish

"The

Sourland Legacy: A Report by the Sourland Regional Citizens Planning

Council," a 60-page book, written by Charles E. Little, and

illustrated

with the photographs of Clem Fiori. The book helped define both the

region and the threats to its endurance. By the mid-’90s, however,

Garrett was battling cancer and the organization was flagging.

In 1997 Haimowitz, executive director of the Lambertville Sewerage

Authority (he is also the plant’s licensed operator, engineer, and

chief administrator), was looking for a new realm for his

environmental

volunteerism. After serving for about 10 years on the Hillsborough

Township Environmental Commission, a volunteer group that advises

the township on environmental issues, he was not reappointed.

"Through my work on the commission, I was very much aware of the

group working on the mountain," he says. "I joined the

Sourland

Planning Council in 1997, and it was not very long before I was made

president" following the death of Garrett. "It was already

getting back on its feet when I joined," says Haimowitz. "I

just continued that trajectory of recovery."

Today the group looks back on its 15-year history with pride. Up to

this point, its work has been carried out with the assistance of two

grants, each for $1,000, and each matched by community donations.

"Over the course of 15 years, we have succeeded beyond our wildest

dreams," says Haimowitz. "The ability to pull the five towns

and three counties together to perform such an extensive study of

the mountain, using grant money, is beyond our wildest expectations.

We had thought we were going to have a very slow, steady uphill

battle. Now the group is getting these five towns and three counties

to join in applying for a Smart Growth Grant to fund a unified plan

for the mountain. The support that has come out of the woodwork for

this has been fabulous."

Today the Sourland Planning Council distributes 300 copies of its

regular newsletter. Its meetings take place four or five times a year

— the next meeting will be on Wednesday, July 19 — and are

generally attended by about 30 people.

Asked if the group’s primary movers are also area landowners,

Haimowitz

says, "The core group, I would characterize as environmentalists

and not as NIMBYS." "NIMBYS" is an acronym for the

pervasive

"Not In My Back Yard" attitude toward growth and planning.

And the Sourland Council, he notes, is not a no-growth organization.

"Without growth, where will our children live?" he says.

"How

do you address the vested rights of the landowners? You must have

balance."

Like so many environmental issues, Haimowitz says even where there

is support politically, there has not been funding. "We never

expected to find a source for a 100 percent grant, nor to get it going

so quickly."

The Sourland Planning Council will write the grant application in

the name of the five municipalities. If the grant is successful, it

will be administered by a committee of the five municipalities; the

structure of which is yet to be determined. In addition to the

Sourland Planning Council, three other nonprofit groups have already

asked for the seat at the table: The Stonybrook-Millstone Watershed

Association, the Delaware and Raritan Greenway, and the Hunterdon

County Land Trust.

"The most important thing is to define what components of the

Sourlands have to be saved intact in order to maintain the integrity

of the eco-system and then allow development to proceed within those

constraints," says Haimowitz. The group estimates that all the

various components of the planning study could be completed and

integrated

in three to nine months. "Then you get to the hard part, which

is what do the municipalities do with the information," says

Haimowitz,

"and that’s really up to them."

For Haimowitz, the rich natural resources of the Sourland Mountain

are bred in the bone. Born in Hillsborough Township, he has lived

here all his life.

Haimowitz grew up on a chicken farm on Hillsborough Road. His father,

Clem, also had a college education; in 1960, when farming was bad,

he went back to college and earned his teaching certificate. His

mother,

Ruth, was a registered nurse. The youngest of three boys, Haimowitz’s

oldest brother Rocky works for the Denver building department. Brother

Larry lives San Jose, California, and works for a semi-conductor

machine

tool company.

Haimowitz graduated from Somerville High School (before Hillsborough

High existed), and attended the University of Maine. Why so far?

"Being

a typical teenager, I drew a line 250 miles from home and another

500 miles from home and looked for schools between those two

lines,"

he says.

He earned his bachelor’s in civil engineering in 1971. Working for

American Cyanamid’s Bound Brook plant, he took night classes at

Rutgers;

earning a master’s in sanitary engineering in 1978.

Part of his work with the Lambertville Sewerage Authority includes

community education. "I do a fantastic one-half hour presentation

for kids on the definition of water pollution," he says. "You

know most people push the silver handle and forget it." Haimowitz

is also a volunteer for the Somerset County Park Commission in the

Sourland Mountain Preserve. He also serves on the public education

committee of the New Jersey Water Environmental Association.

One of the Sourland Planning Council’s most effective tools for

raising

public awareness is a CD-ROM presentation, completed in April. Titled

"The Sourlands — a natural area at the crossroads," the

presentation was created by Joel Coyne, by trade a public health

officer

for the Bernards Township Health Department. The presentation

elegantly

tells the story of the Sourlands and sketches out potential planning

alternatives in 90 slides, maps, and diagrams. "He’s the genius

who made it happen," says Haimowitz.

Haimowitz is keen to attribute the current climate of success to

others.

"I think what we’re seeing is a slow increase in awareness of

environmental issues in general and of the uniqueness of the Sourland

Mountain in particular," he says, "and I think we’ve just

reached a critical mass. This is what Bob Garrett had envisioned in

1986, and his dream is coming true. If he hadn’t died, he probably

would have got this done several years earlier."

— Nicole Plett

Sourland Planning Council presents to the Hopewell Township Planning Board ,

Municipal Building, 201 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, 609-737-0605. Thursday, July 13, 7:30 p.m.

Sourland Planning Council, Box 538, Neshanic Station,

08853. Annual membership is $15, $25 family, $10 senior, and $50

patron.

Next meeting is in a home in East Amwell (For directions, call Andrea

Bonette, 609-466-0641), Wednesday, July 19, 7:30 p.m.


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