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‘Greens’ Say Highlands Council Trying to Stifle Public Comment

Council says rules ensure that discussions on updated regional plan take place in public

Highlands

Environmental groups are challenging proposals to update a blueprint for the state’s management of the Highlands region, saying that even the process by which updates are made doesn’t allow for enough public participation. They argue that the process will allow the state to make decisions “behind closed doors,” something vehemently denied by the Highlands Council itself.

Objections by groups including the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, Raritan Headwaters Association, and New Jersey Sierra Club come as the Highlands Council moves ahead with plans to amend the Regional Master Plan (RMP), a guiding document, for the first time since it was adopted in 2008.

On October 19, the council will consider a raft of proposals for the updated plan that have been produced by staff at the state agency, as well as by the public. And it will look at a proposed framework for the process of amending the RMP, which implements the Highlands Act of 2004.

On the map

The amendment process allows the public to comment on proposed updates for 30 days after the plans are published, and sets five public meetings around the state, plus one in Trenton, to allow public discussion on the plans.

But critics say the process doesn’t give the public enough opportunity to comment on a huge and complicated plan that has profound long-term consequences for environmental quality in the 850,000-acre Highlands region of northwest New Jersey and the many areas downstream that depend on it for drinking water.

According to the critics, the council is split between pro-development interests and those who support greater public input. With one of the council’s 15 seats now vacant, critics hope the remaining members will deadlock on the public participation proposals, leaving the issue to be decided by a new council that will be appointed when a fresh administration takes over in Trenton in early 2018.

The New Jersey Highlands Coalition, a nonprofit that represents local and regional groups that want to protect water quality, is calling for the public-comment period to be reopened for an additional 60 days, and for the council to hold another public meeting for residents of cities that depend on Highlands water.

The silent treatment

The coalition is also urging the council to allow the public to comment at meetings of a committee that proposes amendments to the full council. At present, members of the public are allowed to attend committee meetings but may not speak.

Elliott Ruga, policy director of the Highlands Coalition, said that it may be too late to include the group’s demands in the proposals to be considered by the council ahead of the October 19 meeting, since the public comment period ended on September 26.

But he said the coalition and its allies will make their demands on public participation at the October 19 meeting.

“It may be a done deal to our disfavor, but there will be at every Highlands Council meeting an open public-comment period, and we will reiterate our concerns,” Ruga said. “The public comment period is too short, and the stakeholder group, which consists of Highlands water consumers, are not being solicited for their comments.”

Ruga said the Highlands Council under the Christie administration has not done enough to ensure that municipalities — whose participation is essential to defending water quality and controlling development — are in conformance with the Highlands Act.

“We haven’t seen the RMP implemented to the degree that we feel the Legislature intended,” he said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, urged the council to reject a document that describes the process of amending the Regional Master Plan. Tittel said the document allows an amendment committee to work “behind closed doors,” depriving the public of the right to comment before a proposal comes before the full council.

“Process is substance, so when you change the process, you change the outcomes,” Tittel said.

Rejecting accusations

But the council rejected accusations that it is limiting public comment, saying the full council, not one of its committees, is the right place for the public to be heard because it’s only the full council that makes final decisions.

“These comments are not about a lack of transparency, nor could they be since the Procedure ensures that the Committee’s deliberations take place in public,” the council said in a response to public comments.

“Whenever the Committee expects to make a recommendation to Council on a proposed amendment, the Committee meeting will be noticed to the public, the meeting will be open to the public, and meeting minutes will be made available to the public,” the council said. “The Committee will not be operating, as one commenter stated, ‘behind closed doors.’”

In response to calls for a longer public-comment period, the council said it may extend the 30-day period if appropriate.

“The Highlands Council agrees that a public comment period of 30 days could be too short depending on the nature of the amendment,” it said, in its response to public comments on the addendum. “The Council agrees that it should have the discretion to extend the public comment period up to 90 days, depending on the contents and complexity of the proposed amendment.”

Council staff recommendations on the process of amending the RMP will be discussed by a sub-committee Wednesday, along with a draft of the Monitoring Program Recommendation Report, which proposes actual changes to the RMP. Members of the public may attend the meeting but are not allowed to comment.

That’s a problem because, if adopted, it would present plans to the full council that have not been exposed to full public scrutiny, said Bill Kibler, director of policy and science at Raritan Headwaters Association, an environmental group.

“This is a remarkably undemocratic proposal,” Kibler wrote in an email. “I don’t see why the public should be expected to accept a backroom deal just because they saw it happen.”

For now, the council said in an outline of its plans for updating the RMP that it will consider changes such as the condition of water resources, changes in land use, and shifting demographics since the original document was adopted.

But Kibler said neither the existing RMP, nor its proposed update, contains any significant discussion of how the Highlands will be affected by climate change.

“How are we going to deal with the more intense storms and flooding issues in the context of that water that’s landing on us in the Highlands, and is the drinking water for over 6 million New Jersey residents?” he asked. “For us, it’s a flooding issue, but it’s a drinking water issue for folks downstream.”

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who often covers water and other environmental issues.

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