Court Moves to Protect New Jersey Highlands from Developers

Tom Johnson | August 16, 2011 | Energy & Environment
Appellate division reaffirms legal authority of original regional master plan

The Christie administration may have some problems with the law preserving the New Jersey Highlands, but a series of decisions from the appellate division finds the court backing the stringent protections enacted by lawmakers.

In a series of five court rulings, the law protecting more than 800,000 acres in 88 municipalities was upheld yesterday, turning back efforts by affordable housing advocates and developers to challenge some of underlying provisions of the regional master plan adopted by the Highlands Council in 2008.

For conservationists, the rulings were a welcome affirmation of the Highlands law, coming at a time when, in their view, the law has been under attack. Gov. Chris Christie has urged people at town hall meetings to elect Republicans to fix problems related to landowners because he and others believe the law failed to fulfill its promise to compensate property owners.

Two of the decisions were published rulings by the court, with one affirming that the protections afforded to the woodlands, lakes and grasslands trump the state’s policies promoting affordable housing. The other written decision upholds the council’s program that allows it to transfer development rights to other areas from areas given protections under the law.

“The decisions by the Appellate Division upholding the Highlands regional master plan is a strong affirmation of the Highlands Council’s work and analysis to ensure that the plan meets all of the mandates of the Highlands Act while securing the water resources critical to all of us in New Jersey,” said Tom Borden, the council’s deputy executive director and chief counsel.

In the other decisions, the court ruled that local planning has to conform to the regional master plan, saying it is the tool the legislature chose to guide development and protection of natural resources in the Highlands area, which provides drinking water to more than 5 million people in the state.

“These decisions as a package not only affirm the Highlands regional master plan as the planning tool for the region, but this is a great victory for the Highlands and the protection of our water supplies,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Tittel argued the decision was especially important, given the Christie administration’s appointments to the Highlands Council, which he and other environmentalists argue could shift the balance of the body from one dedicated to preserving the region to one that wants to undo some of the protections in the law.

But that view was disputed by council members. “Based on the actions of the court, we on the council will continue to implement the regional master plan in a fair and balanced way — and in a way that considers the welfare of the state as well as the landowners, residents and stakeholders in the Highlands,” said Jim Rilee, chairman of the council and mayor of Roxbury.

To date, 60 towns have submitted a petition to conform to the Highlands regional master plan, resulting in a 97 percent conformance in the preservation area (401,903 acres) and 35 percent conformance in the planning area (157,460 acres).