Explainer: NJ Highlands Protects Resources, Preserves Open Space

Area designated in 2004 for strict new controls on development encompasses 860,000 acres in 88 municipalities

New Jersey’s Highlands region encompasses 860,000 acres stretching from the New York border in Bergen County to the Delaware River in Hunterdon. It encompasses 88 municipalities in portions of seven counties (Bergen, Hunterdon, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex and Warren). It is part of a larger geologic region stretching from northwestern Connecticut, through New York and New Jersey to southeastern Pennsylvania. New Jersey’s Highlands include large areas of forestland and are the source of drinking water for more than 5 million New Jerseyans.

Preservation becomes the law

In 2004, the Legislature passed and Governor Jim McGreevey signed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act. That law created the region and divided it into two roughly equal parts: the planning area and the preservation area.

Tough new rules

Under the law, the state Department of Environmental Protection established specific rules to limit new construction in the preservation area. The law established the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council to draft a master plan that municipalities with land within the preservation area must follow and those in the planning area may follow voluntarily. The law set up a program for voluntary transfer of development rights and also provided several types of planning grants to municipalities.

Limits on development

The rules adopted by the DEP set limits on development in the preservation area: No construction can occur within buffer zones around rivers and other waters, development cannot take place on steeply sloped land, only one home needing a septic system can be built for every 88 acres of forest land and only one is allowed for every 25 acres of farmland.

Master plan fine-tunes rules

The 464-page regional master plan adopted in 2008 includes additional details about how and where construction can take place. Initially, the law covered all land in the preservation area. Now the master plan also impacts towns in planning area towns that have agreed to follow it voluntarily – which 34 of 83 municipalities have done.

Kudos and criticism

Environmentalists praise the law for preserving open space, while some land owners complain about lost property values. As a practical matter, though, the law has had little impact on most property owners because of various exceptions to the rules. For instance, property owners can build additions to existing homes, hospitals and schools can expand, and transportation and utility maintenance — and, in some cases, utility and transportation improvements – are allowed.
Owners of larger tracts who said their land lost value as a result of being unable to develop it can apply for exemptions, seek to preserve their land through state or local programs, or transfer the development rights to other property within a voluntary receiving zone in or outside the Highlands region.

Some people, in what are deemed to be hardship cases, have received direct payments from the Highlands Development Credits Bank, but most of those who sell their rights, known as HDCs, will have to wait until receiving zones are established.

Moving forward

The 15-member Highlands Council is overseeing work to make sure municipal master plans conform to the regional plan. The council is also working on approval of redevelopment areas allowing environmentally sound construction on land that was already developed within the preservation area. Finally, it is about to embark on a re-examination and update of the regional master plan.