This month saw the eighth anniversary of the passage of the New Jersey Highlands Act. This landmark legislation, which is supposed to protect the drinking water for more than half of New Jersey, is under serious threat by the Christie administration.
As we remember the importance of the Highlands and what it means to the future of our water supply, we also need to look back at how we got here. My family has been in Ringwood for three generations. Spending time by the Wanaque Reservoir, you learn a lot about water supply and the environment. When I was young, I spent my winters in the Newark-Hillside border, where there was a stream behind my house that you could throw a match into and watch it flare different colors. In Ringwood you could swim in and drink from the streams and see fish and other wildlife. It gave you a real understanding of what protecting the environment was all about. It was a wonderful place to spend summers running through the woods, hiking, swimming, and seeing on a day-to-day basis the Wanaque Reservoir.
During a drought, the bottom of the Reservoir was so brown and empty you could almost see Lawrence of Arabia crossing it. In the 1980s they started pumping in water from the Passaic River. You could see the Reservoir actually change colors from all the algae being pumped up, turning lime green like Jell-O.
The more interesting part of living in Ringwood was the ongoing environmental battles. What made this area so unique was not just the mountains and streams, but when you climbed to the top of a local peak you could see the Wanaque Reservoir, green hills, and the New York skyline in the distance. And that has always been the source of conflicts. Ringwood has always been a place where metropolitan area sprawl bumps up against nature.
For years, there have been those that have been trying to extend urban New Jersey into Ringwood. But this is where over 2 million people get their drinking water and one of last contiguous forests in the state. The battles have always been local residents against large-scale developments or even mining companies. We had many victories, including getting Passaic County to use eminent domain to save Sterling Forest. The people in Ringwood in the 70s, 80s, and 90s fought to keep out sewers and thousands of units of condominiums, power plants, chemical plants, highways, quarries, and even uranium mining.
In the 1980s, the citizens of Ringwood led the battle to stop the town council from bringing in sewers and thousands of units of condos under the guise of Mt. Laurel. Ringwood was the first place in New Jersey that was exempted from a regional share of affordable housing because we were environmentally sensitive and did not have urbanizing infrastructure. We had to meet the local affordable housing obligation but were able to stop a builder’s remedy lawsuit.
In the 1990s the Wise Use movement, a western property rights group, was brought into town to attack local activists by large property owners. They established a local group to undercut environmental protections.
In 1994, sewers were brought to a municipal referendum once again and even though the other side outspent the local citizens and environmentalists probably 50 to 1, the people of Ringwood voted 3,500 to 1,000 to keep out sewers and urbanizing development.
Local citizens had to raise money from bake sales and house parties to hire attorneys and fight large-scale developments. The other side spent hundreds of thousands. We had a pro-environmental mayor who was hounded out of office by development interests. People were threatened, dogs were poisoned, and phones were tapped.
That is why when the Highlands Act was passed it was a great relief as well as victory. Protection of the water supply and environmental resources should not just be the responsibility of local citizens and governments but all of us.
When the Highlands Act was proposed, Ringwood was one of the first towns to support the legislation after decades of battles and the town spending its own money to protect the drinking water for millions of New Jersey residents. The Highlands Act was looked at as bringing regional planning, and natural resource and water planning — ending the insanity that local citizens would have to protect the water supply that belongs to the people of New Jersey.
Now under Gov. Christie we may be headed back in that direction.
Our state’s three largest industries, pharmaceuticals, food processing, and tourism, all depend on Highlands water. If Christie cared about our three largest industries he would protect the Highlands water supply.
Instead, Christie has appointed individuals to the Highlands Council that are against the Highlands Act and called for it to be repealed. He has appointed a chairman for the council that delayed conformance to the Highlands plan in his own community and challenged the science behind the Highlands plan.
After stacking the council with his political cronies, the governor’s office orchestrated the ouster of the council’s professional and independent executive director, to be replaced by a political buddy, Morris County Freeholder Gene Feyl. The council and staff are being transformed into a rubberstamp for the Governor’s anti-Highlands agenda, especially since the Highlands Plan will be re-adopted in 2013 and could be significantly weakened.
Meanwhile the DEP is meeting with developers behind closed doors to rewrite and weaken the Highlands regulations and the nitrate dilution model, which limits the density of development allowed in the Highlands region.
The Legislature is also rolling back protections for the region by including the Highlands in the Permit Extension Act for the first time. This will allow developers in the Planning Area to evade updated environmental laws, zoning, and local ordinances — allowing more sprawl that will impact the Highlands water supply.
One Ringwood council member said the best thing about the Highlands Act is that now the council no longer has hundreds of people coming out to protest sewers or development issues at the meetings. The meetings are over at 8:30, he can go out to the bar for a little bit and be home by 11:00.
Eight years after the Highlands Act we are fighting to save the region all over again.