It throws a protective blanket over some of New Jersey’s most valued and fragile resources. The Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, signed into law in August, 2004, provides preservation and governed growth for an 800,000-acre swath along the Appalachian Ridge in the state’s northwest. The region covers eastern flanks of Warren and Sussex, most all of Morris and Passaic, northern parts of Hunterdon and Somerset, and a western slice of Burlington counties, encompassing 88 municipalities. But it is the wealth beyond the constructions of man that the Highlands Act deems most important.

Vast miles of contiguous forest, wetlands, and pristine watersheds lie within the Highlands. Over 110,000 acres of farmland are actively cultivated within its borders. But most valued, and the real impetus for the Highlands Act, are the more than 379 million gallons of pure water, which supply one half of the state’s residents. The state sees the Highlands as encompassing irreplaceable assets, to which all growth must yield.

Yet New Jersey is a dynamic state and preservation cannot be achieved by fence and fiat. The Highlands Council, the Act’s governing arm under the NJ DEP, has been given the task of coming up with a Regional Master Plan by this June for these 800,000 acres. It will serve as a guide to future growth. To discern the master plan’s progress and ramifications, the New Jersey State Bar Association is offering a breakfast seminar, “The Highlands:Taking or Already Taken,” on Tuesday, February 14, at 8:30 a.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. Cost: $9. Visit www.njbsa.com.

The moderator is chairman of the State Bar Association’s Environmental Law section, Raymond Papperman of Stark & Stark. Speakers include Thomas Borden, chief counsel to the Highlands Council, and Steve Bolzano, the Council’s director of science and planning.

No sensible person denies that New Jersey desperately needs an overall growth plan. The problem is that the instant a region is held for protection or study, everybody panics and begins lobbying their personal agendas. Environmentalists lock arms and chant “not one more structure!” Developers strive to obtain every possible variance. Amidst this stormy sea of self interest, the Highlands Council scrambles for a satisfactory regional master plan by the June deadline.

Highlands on hold. Similar to the Pinelands Commission, established in l979, the Highland Council has set its planning goals around pure water and practicality. It has sectioned the 1,250 square miles of the Highlands into two roughly equal zones — the preservation area and the planning area. Within the preserved areas, forming for the most part a central core of the region, no new major construction is permitted. Single home improvements and certain grandfathered expansions are allowed.

The planning sections, which basically flank this core, allow for expansion and new construction, provided it meets with council guidelines and review.

In order to encourage smart growth, the Highlands Council has established a Transfer Developments Rights program, through which the individual landowner may sell his right to build in an environmentally restricted area to a developer who is planning to build in a non-restricted zone. By garnering such credits, the developer gets to build, according to his credit allowance, while the individual landowner, denied his right to build, at least retains the financial value of his asset.

There is risk involved. Transfer payments may be difficult to enforce. And not every town allows every accredited developer to build where and as much as he wants. But the system does allow for some control of placement and number of new constructions. Those seeking clarification of land use rules should phone 609-633-6563.

Master plan outreach. If you cannot give every individual satisfaction, you can at least give them their say. Armed with this motto, in April the Highlands Council began to hold bi-weekly public meetings throughout the affected counties to catch the feel of the residents. These town hall style meetings, while loud, have been productive. Additionally, the Highlands Council has held open meetings with the freeholders of each involved county.

While the Highlands Council is surveying watersheds and forest areas, it is also encouraging municipalities to do a little master planning of their own. A series of grants, many through the Commission On Affordable Housing (COAH), are available for towns creating their own master plans. Grants range up to $7,500 each from a $600,000 fund. For municipalities, it is simply a matter of plan or be planned.

Taking sides. Much has been done to keep the planning sessions from becoming a war between “those rapacious developers” and “those unrealistic tree huggers.” Gradually the arguments are shifting from how much growth to where? Higher density development, once the bane of all environmentalists, is now being seen as a viable method of keeping watersheds pristine and forests uninterrupted. Municipalities are realizing the benefits of rebuilding downtown areas, accessible by foot, rather than out-of-area malls demanding costly roads and polluting autos.

Nobody wants to live in a land where the government won’t let you build a patio because you live near a lake. But your freedom of land use should stop short of fouling my water. Exactly where that line should be drawn is a tricky and hotly-contested question. Yet if New Jersey’s 8.5 million residents follow U.S. Census predictions and swell to 9.7 million in the next 20 years, cool heads must prevail. The need for exact, strongly enforced statewide planning will become not just a good idea, but a matter of survival.

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