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Years since the landmark Highlands Act -- designed to protect a sprawling, seven-county area that supplies half of New Jersey’s drinking water -- was signed into law

On Aug. 10, 2004 — exactly 10 years ago this Sunday — Gov. James E. McGreevey signed the landmark New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act.

Considered one of New Jersey’s most significant pieces of environmental legislation, the law protects the sprawling environmentally-sensitive Highlands region, which covers some 860,000 acres stretching across seven counties and 88 municipalities. The area provides drinking water to more than half the state’s population.

The act split the region into a “preservation” area where development was to be strictly controlled and a “planning” area where more development could be permitted.

Considerable debate and — some believe — political deal-making went into determining how those lines were drawn. Critics also cried foul over the state’s lack of funds to compensate preservation area property owners who could no longer sell the development rights to their land, complaints which persist today.

After the law was signed, the Highlands Council, a 15-member board of appointed officials, drafted a regional master plan -- a set of policies and rules managing growth and conservation in the area. Today, the council continues to oversee the process of “conformance,” or bringing local planning in line with the master plan.

As of last month, according to Highlands Council staff, 59 municipalities have submitted “petitions for conformance,” and 47 of those plans have been approved.

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