Op-Ed: New Highlands Rules Strike Balance Between Environment, Equity

Ryck Suydam | September 20, 2016 | Opinion
The DEP’s recent proposal uses over 20,000 new well-test results from land in the Highlands

Ryck Suydam
The environmental groups, elected officials, and others protesting the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposal to change to how groundwater should be protected in the Highlands region have got it wrong. The DEP’s proposal finally strikes a fair balance of environmental and landowner-equity protection. The rule proposal uses a wealth of scientific data from the U.S. Geological Survey to modify and improve the septic-density formula put into place following the enactment of the Highland Act nearly 12 years ago.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau challenged the DEP’s original septic-density calculation as being overly conservative in the extreme, based on only a handful of well tests, and without scientific justification. 

In addition to our concerns about the lack of scientific basis, the Farm Bureau also heard from our members in the region that the extremely stringent lot-size standards of the current rule would negatively affect land values by as much as 70 percent. For farmers, the land is their primary financial business asset and for many their retirement investment as well.  Many landowners told us that they are no longer able to build homes for their children to be nearby and possibly part of the farm operation.

It took years, but it appears that the DEP and its impartial Science Advisory Board agreed that the original rule needed reconsideration. The DEP’s recent proposal used over 20,000 new well-test results from land in the Highlands, and it was determined that smaller lot sizes could still adequately protect groundwater in this region. Another major change is that the Land Use Capability Zones created by the Regional Master Plan — based on over 50 environmental resource factors and hundreds of policies —will now replace the more simplistic characterizations that the DEP had to work with when drafting the original rules.  This change better connects the DEP rules to the Highlands Regional Master Plan and allows every party access to the same environmental information to use in making policy.

Recently, some public officials and religious leaders have joined forces with environmental activists urging the Legislature to step in and revoke the rule. They argue that this rule change will lead to rampant development and degradation of water quality. One religious leader went so far as to claim that it would be “immoral” for the DEP to adopt this new proposal. This is simply not the case. The density is potentially increased — in the protection zone the minimum septic density would go from one septic per 88 acres to one per 23 acres. For the less restrictive areas, density will go from one septic per 25 acres to one per 11 or 12 acres. 

But this is still only one of many environmental regulations that continue to govern the amount of new development in the Highlands. In the preservation area, there are 50 or more kinds of environmental factors that must also be considered, as well as the local planning and zoning regulations of each town. And these are still very much in effect now, even if the septic density formula is calculated in a different way. Considering all of these factors, the DEP estimates that the changes could potentially increase the number of new septic units permitted in the region by about 12 percent. While we believe these changes do not threaten the environment of the Highlands, we feel that any concern for the use of these rights should be subject to public acquisition with all taxpayers of New Jersey sharing in their cost.

These more reasonable and supportable numbers could stimulate redevelopment in the existing communities, more interest in open space and farmland preservation, and a firmer financial basis for the improvements and investments Highlands farmers need in order to plan for their land and farm operations.

And to the issue of morality: What kind of morality forces one group of landowners to suffer for the benefit of another? The New Jersey Legislature stated when adopting the Highlands Act that some form of “fair compensation” would be provided for the thousands of landowners in the region whose equity was lost.  This was formal recognition that fairness should prevail so that one group of property owners should not bear the entire cost of this plan to protect Highlands water resources. This proposal gets us one step closer to the fairness we were all promised.