Opinion: Reading the Highlands Tea Leaves
Christie's next moves will signal his true intentions.
Now that he has solidified his control over the Highlands Council -- with his new appointees ensconced as a working majority and a new executive director likely to be named this week -- Gov. Chris Christie is holding not only all of the cards but also the very future of the Highlands in his hands. How he plays those cards in the next few months will tell us a lot about his real intentions.
The governor and his new appointees have repeatedly said that they remain committed to protecting the resources of the Highlands -- especially its water resources. But they plan to do so in a way that provides reasonable compensation to landowners whose property is subject to strict regulations.
The next few months will clarify if that is really what the Governor intends. Here are a few things to watch to determine his real agenda for the area that provides drinking water to over half of New Jersey’s more than eight million residents.
First, the process for hiring a new executive director should have allayed fears that the real agenda was to dismantle Highlands protections. But so far, that process has been anything but transparent or reassuring. And if the clandestine and hurried search that is underway simply winds up confirming the rumored appointment of Morris County Freeholder Gene Feyl as the replacement for the ousted Eileen Swann, that does not bode well either for the new executive director or for the likely shape of things to come.
When Terry Moore was replaced as the long-term and fairly controversial executive director of the Pinelands Commission, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman launched a national search for his successor, using a formal search committee and an outside headhunter in what was widely regarded as a model search. Whitman concluded that transparency and a willingness to conduct a professional search were the right signals to send to local governments, as well as to both the development and conservation communities. Obviously, Gov. Christie has felt no such compunctions.
If Feyl is appointed, as is widely expected, he deserves at least a little sympathy. He seems like a decent guy, with a pretty good open space record in Morris County. And I can’t help but think that whoever is appointed as the new executive director deserves to be chosen by a genuine competition, rather than as the beneficiary of a back-room deal. This is a tough enough job to handle without having to start out that way.
The next thing to watch is whether the new majority and executive director start slowing down the conformance process. Cynical folks have noted that the governor replaced Swann just as she was beginning to close in on having a majority of the municipalities in both the preservation area and the planning area come into conformance with the Highlands Regional Master plan. So it will be very informative to see if the council continues its past brisk pace of considering and approving conformance requests, or if things suddenly slow down.
Another telltale sign to watch for is whether the council accelerates the process for revising the regional management plan, and/or if it begins to consider more variances and waivers. These actions will be a real litmus test of both the council and the governor’s true commitment to the plan.
Last, but certainly not least, both the governor and his new appointees have scored a lot of political points by stressing that the compensation they claim was “promised” to regulated landowners has not been forthcoming. But now it is time for them to put their money where their mouth is on this issue.
Current state funding for the purchase of land or development rights is all but exhausted. So it will be very telling to see if the governor takes the lead on proposing a new stable source of open space funding that could compensate landowners who wish to sell their property for open space, as he has been urged to do by people on both sides of the Highlands issue. And since Earth Day is right around the corner, the governor has both the bully pulpit and a perfect opportunity not to just talk the talk, but to walk the walk.
If the governor wants us to believe that he really is committed to protecting the Highlands, he will instruct his new working majority on the council to proceed with business as usual, and to complete the conformance process in a timely fashion. If the conformance schedule gets bogged down, however, and more time and attention are spent working around the plan, it will be pretty hard for the administration to claim that it has been falsely accused of wanting to subvert the protection of the Highlands.
If the governor is sincere about providing promised compensation to landowners, look for that Earth Day announcement of new open space and farmland preservation funding. But if that announcement is not forthcoming, it is going to be more than a little obvious that both disgruntled property owners and the public whose drinking water comes from the Highlands have all been had. It will also demonstrate that the governor’s true agenda has been and continues to be the dismantling of Highlands protections, under the guise of the failure of government to provide meaningful compensation to property owners whose lands are highly regulated in order to preserve our water supplies.