Virtually a day doesn’t go by lately without an emotional letter to the editor or a forceful op-ed piece that either demands the outright repeal of the 2004 Highlands Act or insists that Gov. Christie stay the course on Highlands preservation efforts. Two towns have even refused to come into conformance with the law, and several counties, as well as individual property owners, have filed legal challenges in both state and federal courts attacking the constitutionality of the new restrictions on development.
Yet most of these emotional efforts miss an important point. The Highlands preservation is strikingly similar to a successful 30-year-old public policy experiment: The Pinelands. Understanding the historical lessons of that earlier undertaking can help pave the way for tomorrow’s acceptable solution.
The parallels between Pinelands and Highlands efforts are numerous. Both pieces of legislation were enacted to preserve vast yet vulnerable water supplies. In the case of the Pinelands, it was the Cohansey Aquifer, an estimated 17-trillion-gallon reservoir that most of the population of South Jersey relies on for drinking water, as well as for farming and industrial use. In the case of the Highlands, it is the sprawling system of surface water reservoirs, both natural and man-made, that store the water used by some 5 million New Jersey residents, as well as farmers and industries in the northern and central parts of the state. In both cases, the legislature and past governors have reached a consensus that protecting these water supplies was an essential state policy, and that regional planning and regulatory agencies were the best mechanism for achieving this critical goal.
When I close my eyes and listen to the current Highlands debate, I often feel as if I’ve been transported back to the early 1980s, when the battle against the Pinelands Comprehensive Master plan was at a fever pitch. Then as now, a handful of individuals and local governments led a vocal and fierce resistance, vowing to overturn what they viewed as an unconstitutional interference with home rule and private property rights.
As history shows, however, the courts did not uphold any of those the legal challenges, and legislators and governors of both parties allowed the new Pinelands regional planning system to be implemented. Today, though some critics remain, the Pinelands plan is widely viewed as the most successful regional planning effort in the nation. More importantly, the water supply of South Jersey remains intact, and we have the luxury of debating how that water might best be used.
Perhaps even more impressive is that despite predictions of economic disasters, studies show that Pinelands towns tend to have slightly lower and more stable property tax rates than their counterparts outside the Pinelands area.
Frankly, there is no reason to think that if the Highlands regional planning process is allowed to proceed that it will be any different. It is highly unlikely that either the Highlands statute or the regional master plan will be overturned. It is equally unlikely that our new governor and the current legislature will choose to surrender control over what is arguably the most important factor in the state’s economic future: an adequate water supply.
The lessons to be learned from the Pinelands can help us make a smoother transition to a politically acceptable implementation of the Highlands plan.
We first need qualified appointments to the Highlands Council to ensure a wide-ranging and vigorous debate that considers differing perspectives but also ultimately serves the state’s paramount interest in preserving the water supply.
Next, we need to ensure that funds are made available both from the new Green Acres bonds and from other sources to purchase properties from willing sellers in the Highlands area.
Then we need to encourage municipalities outside the Highlands area to accept some of the density that would be better located away from water supplies (as provided in legislation that currently awaits the governor’s signature) so that the Highlands regional TDR system can begin to work effectively.
Last, we need to remember that the future of our economy, as well as the quality of our environment, is directly tied to the adequacy of our water supply, especially in this new era of climate change. In this context, doing anything other than staying the course on implementing the Highlands Act would invite an economic disaster — as well as degrade the quality of our lives.