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Explainer: Monitoring the Impact of the Highlands Regional Master Plan

The NJ Highlands Council is supposed to issue a monitoring report every six years. Is it living up to its responsibilities?

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It has been more than 11 years since New Jersey enacted the Highlands Protection and Planning Act and almost seven since a master plan for the region took effect.

The law and development restrictions imposed on the region -- including limits on building on steep slopes and the number of acres required for each new home built with a septic system -- have been controversial from the start. They remain so, with some diehard property owners continuing to complain that their property values were stolen.

So a logical question would be: How are things going?

That's not a question the New Jersey Highlands Council, which wrote and oversees the master plan, can answer in any detail, despite the plan's requirement that the council complete a monitoring report at least every six years.

The council announced the start of its monitoring program in spring 2013. So far, it has done some groundwork, awarded a few contracts, held stakeholder meetings, and received -- though not yet responded to -- public comments. The council says it will post all comments and its responses once it completes its review. According to the rulemaking process, it has to do this, although COAH got away with not posting comments because it never adopted the rule

It makes sense to objectively evaluate the effect these significant land-use changes are having on the 860,000-acre region. But the grades in a number of areas -- including natural resources, water protection, agriculture, land-owner equity and economic development -- should also be used to revise and refine the master plan, which is also supposed to be done every six years.

The Highlands region stretches from the New York border in Bergen County to the Delaware River in Hunterdon. It encompasses 88 municipalities in portions of seven counties (Bergen, Hunterdon, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex, and Warren). New Jersey’s Highlands include large areas of forestland and are the source of drinking water for more than 5 million residents.

The need for a regular assessment is outlined in the region’s master plan.

"Monitoring and research are vital to understanding the impact and effectiveness of the RMP (Regional Master Plan) over time," the plan states. "Monitoring will ensure that the RMP continues to provide effective polices and programmatic approaches in an ever-changing landscape. In order to evaluate regional conditions, identify new or emerging issues, and develop future RMP priorities, indicators will be identified and tracked by the Highlands Council ... The monitoring program is necessary to ensure the RMP’s goal of long-term sustainability in the Highlands Region."

The council envisioned that it would assess its impact by comparing municipalities within the Highlands with those outside it. It proposed using environmental, social and economic indicators of health to determine how the act has affected the region. It is to chart baseline measures -- 2004, the year the act was signed -- and compare them against other points in time, including 2008, the year the council approved the master plan.

According to the master plan, an initial assessment of the region was to have been done in order to develop “Highlands Milestones,” which were to help measure progress toward the plan's goals. It suggested a number of such milestones, including:

  • Increase in the number of acres preserved as open space in tracts of land designated “Conservation Priority Areas" each year;

  • Increase in the number of redevelopment and brownfields properties that are redeveloped in conformance with the master plan's policies;

  • Reduction or elimination of water deficits in specific watersheds;

  • Compliance of new development with septic-density rules;

  • Increase in the percentage of new construction projects that include mixed-use or green building approaches;

  • Increase in the number of municipalities or portions of municipalities agreeing to conform their ordinances to the master plan.

Although the plan calls for a detailed monitoring report at least every six years, it also asserts that monitoring should be an "ongoing process."

The monitoring of the effect of the Highlands Act also includes measuring "the overall economic health of the region as compared to the rest of the State."

This is the one area in which a report has been issued. That report, issued last spring, indicates that, despite all the criticisms, the Highlands rules and regulations have not negatively impacted the region.

"The employment and demographic data analysis revealed no statistically relevant basis to conclude that the Act or the RMP (Regional Master Plan) had a positive or negative impact on economic growth in the Highlands Region," the report concluded.

This report only measured employment impacts. The consultant is also set to deliver a demographic and real-estate analysis and a fiscal and financial analysis, as well as a final report on the overall fiscal impact of the act.

Especially given the contentiousness of the Highlands act, the plan expects that the monitoring report "will be used to communicate with state, federal, county, and local planning partners, and the general public the successes of the RMP, as well as the remaining challenges."

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