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Highlands Act Has Seen Success -- But It’s Not Out of the Woods Yet

Law has slowed sprawl, protected drinking water, but opposition remains – and funding vote in November could have big impact

Highlands Map

Despite some setbacks, proponents of the 10-year-old New Jersey Highlands Act say it is achieving its primary goal—protecting drinking water supplies for more than 5 million people in the state.

The act is viewed by advocates as one of the most important environmental measures ever adopted in the state. The law is designed to protect more than 860,000 acres of forests, farmland, and ample supplies of clean drinking water in reservoirs serving much of New Jersey.

It divides the Highlands into two regions -- the planning area and the preservation area, encompassing 88 municipalities and seven counties, mostly in northern New Jersey.

Signed into law 10 years ago this past Sunday by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, the Highlands Act has had plenty of critics, including some who now serve on the Highlands Council, which oversees planning in the region. Some complain that landowners affected by the law’s constraints on development have not been fairly compensated.

“The birthing process was far from easy,’’ acknowledged state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a co-sponsor of the measure. “In the 10 years, the act has kept its promise to protect the water supply for 5.5 million people.’’

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), who sponsored the bill, said the breadth and scope of the Highland Act’s impact on the state has been staggering.

“Had we not acted 10 years ago, I shudder to think of the consequences that would be playing out today,’’ McKeon said. “Are we out of the woods yet? No. Have we come a long way? Yes.’’

Smith noted that the Highlands Act has been successful even in the face of five years of an administration that is hostile to the law -- clearly referring to the Christie administration without mentioning it by name. The law has also withstood three constitutional challenges, Smith said.

“There’s still plenty, plenty of work to do,’’ he added.

A big priority is convincing voters to approve a constitutional amendment, on the ballot this November, that would dedicate existing corporate business tax revenue to preserving open space, farmland, and other areas, Smith said.

The proposal would initially raise $70 million a year, increasing to at least $117 million annually after five years. The money could be a boon to the Highlands, Smith noted, because land that protects water resources is given twice the priority compared to other property proposed for preservation.

“The biggest issue is money,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to threats to the Highlands. “This is still a work in progress, but we’ve seen sprawl slow down in the Highlands. We are not seeing sprawl and overdevelopment threaten our water supply.’’

In its annual Highlands Report Card, the Sierra Club gave a decidedly more downbeat assessment of the state of affairs in the region, giving Gov. Chris Christie a “F” for his attacks on the law and the same grades for his appointments to the Highlands Council and for politicizing the board.

Numerous bills in the Legislature would roll back some of the protections in the Highlands Act. But Smith said those bills “will never see the light of day’’ in the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which he chairs. Despite the early controversy over the law, Smith said, many towns and counties are now supportive and appreciative of the protections it affords.

Another issue of concern to Highlands advocates are efforts by energy companies, both gas and electricity suppliers, who have proposed and won approval for a number of pipelines and a controversial high-powered electric transmission line through the Highlands.

The latter project, known as the , will also traverse three tracts of federal parklands.

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