Stripping funding from the New Jersey Highlands Council will halt crucial planning by local governments just as regional planning efforts to protect and preserve water supplies are about to bear fruit, environmental advocates and planners told lawmakers.
In a special hearing before the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, conservationists and others said funding was supposed to help the 88 towns in the Highlands conform to the regional master plan adopted by the council, a step that is important to protecting water supply of about 65 percent of the people in the state.
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) called the hearing and invited various Highlands advocates to testify in the hopes that it would convince Gov. Chris Christie to freeze more than $18 million in funding that was supposed to be used by the towns to do the necessary planning.
"It’s critical that we don’t pull the plug for this plan just when it is about to deliver tangible environmental benefits," said Carlos Rodrigues, New Jersey director for the Regional Plan Association, the oldest planning agency in the U.S. The Highlands initiative, he argued, is probably the most ambitious regional plan in the Northeast.
"To defund it just when it is about to deliver is a little bit of embarrassment and we ought to avoid doing it," Rodrigues said.
Eileen Swan, executive director of the council, also said the lack of funding would hurt preservation efforts. "Absent the funding, you won’t have implementation," Swan said.
McKeon said he recognized the diversion of funding is a relatively small amount, especially given the magnitude of the state’s fiscal problems, but added it is needed to avoid losing something other states do not have: a readily available and relatively cheap source of water.
Julia Somers, executive director of the Highlands Coalition, agreed. "Losing any portion of that water supply will cost the state billions of dollars in the future to replace," she said.