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Appeals Court Approves Housing Development in Highlands

Court defers to DEP’s expertise regarding wetlands, endangered species, and impact of proposed sewer connection on water quality

high mountain
Credit: Wikipedia
View of High Mountain in the Highlands

A state appeals court approved a much-contested plan to build a housing development in the Highlands, setting aside concerns by opponents that it would adversely impact environmentally sensitive land and habitat at the 85-acre site.

The court found the state Department of Environmental Protection acted properly in approving a scaled-down 204-unit housing development in Oakland on High Mountain, a scenic vista in the heart of the Highlands.

The project initially goes all the way back to 1987, when the Bi-County Developers brought suit against the borough to build the development as part of a builder’s remedy to erect some low- and moderate-income housing.

The court’s ruling on Friday is the latest twist in a dispute that predates the 2004 enactment of the Highlands Act, which sought to more closely monitor development within the region. The New Jersey Highlands Coalition and New Jersey Sierra Club, which brought the suit, argued the project should not have been exempted from the act due to being grandfathered in.

The environmental groups also argued that permits for the project should not have been granted because of concerns about wetlands, endangered species, and a proposed sewer connection’s impact on water quality.

In siding with the DEP and the developer, the court deferred to the agency’s expertise on those issues in reaching an agreement in 2014 to grant permits for the project. That decision reversed a ruling by the Corzine administration, which had blocked the project, until contested by the developer.

“The Legislature tasked the DEP with balancing environmental and real property interests,’’ the court said in its 31-page decision. The three-member court panel found the settlement by the Christie administration and subsequent issuance of permits “represents DEP’s reasonable attempt to strike this balance.’’ In the past, the borough had to purchase the tract, but the developer declined to negotiate.

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