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Highlands Council’s New Head Seeks More Local Support For Regional Plan

Lisa Plevin is trying to sway leaders of more than 20 municipalities to sign on to the effort to preserve the environmentally sensitive hill country

Lisa Plevin
Lisa Plevin

Lisa Plevin is hitting the reset button on the Highlands Council‘s relationship with municipalities and counties in the region, a protected area that supplies drinking water to more than two-thirds of New Jersey’s population.

For the past eight years, the council has faced opposition from key constituencies. Some local governments oppose the council because they do not want to have it curtail development. The council has also been accused by environmental advocates of doing little to advance its goals of controlling development and protecting water supplies.

As the council’s new executive director, Plevin has been reaching out to the people who can help her overcome those challenges. She is making a fresh attempt to win the backing of more than 20 municipalities that previously had no plans to conform to the Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP), which implements the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act of 2004, but now may be reconsidering that position.

Sixty-one of the region’s 88 municipalities and five of its seven counties already intend to conform with the plan, which requires local governments in the “preservation” area to align their local master plans and development regulations with the RMP. Counties and municipalities in the region’s larger “planning” area are also urged to conform to the master plan but their participation is voluntary.

No new municipalities have signed on since Plevin’s outreach campaign began four months ago. But she is optimistic that more will join when they get beyond what she calls “misconceptions” about the council — a state agency — and recognize that conforming with the plan is in their own best interests.

Assistance available to communities

At the county level, Hunterdon recently passed a resolution to submit a petition, in a move that council officials say was a direct result of the new outreach campaign.

Highlands resized

“We go to them and sit across the table from them and hear first-hand what are their concerns and needs,” Plevin said. “A lot of these mayors who were not particularly interested in the beginning about learning about the council are learning that we have a lot of assistance that we can provide.”

Local officials are not always aware, for example, that the council can make grants to help with planning for projects such as updating a local master plan, stormwater management, or farmland preservation, Plevin said.

The council now recognizes that needs will vary in every jurisdiction, she said, in contrast to its previously rigid checklist of requirements for every community to conform with the RMP.

Plevin said she has received an “incredibly positive” response from officials in the 25 meetings that have so far taken place. She attributed that to showing them that the council now recognizes that different municipalities will conform with the RMP in different ways.

To see the municipalities in the Highlands region, check out the larger of the two maps in this Highlands Council handout.

“Part of the message is something that, frankly, you don’t hear too often from government which is that we have learned how to be more flexible, and how to respond better to the needs of individual communities and counties, rather than using a cookie-cutter approach,” she said.

Among the misconceptions that Plevin has been working to dispel is the idea held by some communities that there is a daunting list of requirements for meeting the conformance requirements.

In fact, some already conform in many respects, and so have less work to do than they think, she said.

Municipalities can get help from the council for projects such as farmland and historic preservation, water use and habitat conservation that might otherwise be sidelined by local budgetary constraints. Those local efforts will help the council’s mission of improving water quality.

To determine what needs to be done, the council can pay for an assessment of a community’s conformance status. “They can then determine whether it’s in their community’s best interests to move the process forward and work more closely with us,” said Plevin, whose 35-year career in environmental policy includes senior positions in Gov. Phil Murphy’s transition team, the U.S. EPA, and the office of the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

New flexibility

Her meetings have included one at the Borough of Washington in Warren County, a community that does not currently conform with the RMP but is now reconsidering whether to do so, said Matthew Hall, the borough manager.

He attributed that to a new flexibility shown by the Highlands Council. “They have made it less of a one-size-fits-all program,” Hall said.

The borough’s cooperation is encouraged by the availability of a council planning grant for an expansion of its sewer system, a project that local officials want to pursue. If the borough foots the bill itself, it would cost $30,000 to $40,000, Hall said.

He said the community previously resisted the idea of conformance because it would hinder development but is now taking another look.

“We can always opt out if we felt it was too constraining,” he said.

Plevin’s outreach also included a meeting at Parsippany-Troy Hills Township in Morris County where officials invited the council to present its recommendations on issues including land use and stormwater management for possible inclusion in a revised local master plan. “It’s a perfect time to have their guidance in this process of creating the master plan,” said the township’s vice president, Janice McCarthy, who attended the council’s presentation.

The township, which sits in the Highlands’ planning area, is not currently in conformance with the RMP but should consider becoming so as part of its master-plan discussions, McCarthy said.

Advocates see a changed attitude

Elliott Ruga, policy director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, an environmental advocacy group, said that under Plevin, the Highlands Council looks set to be more effective than it was during the Christie administration when it was sidelined by pro-development policies.

“When Christie became governor, the momentum that the Highlands Council had achieved in promoting conformance to the Regional Master Plan virtually halted,” Ruga said. He praised Plevin’s predecessor, Margaret Nordstrom, who he said kept the staff in place during Christie’s second term, and left the council in a position where it could regain its momentum under a more progressive governor.

“The council hired the right person and she’s already at it — she’s reached out to every Highlands municipality to reset the relationship,” Ruga said.

He said there’s a new willingness to listen on both sides, a rejection of ideological differences, and a refocusing on how implementation of the Highlands Act can benefit communities.

With a new spirit of cooperation, the council could make progress on establishing so-called receiving zones, where developers can spend credits that are issued to protection-area landowners whose use of land is constrained by the law.

Ruga urged the council to identify Highlands zones that can be developed using the credits.

And he called on the council under its new leadership to reinstate rules on Highlands developments that require changes to the Water Quality Management Plan for the region. The rules were loosened under Christie but should be restored to their previously more rigorous standards, Ruga said.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and a member of the Highlands Council, said the council should now resume its work that has been compromised by over-development and uncoordinated planning.

“This means focusing on bringing local jurisdictions into conformance with the Regional Master Plan and setting as a priority the restoration of the natural ecosystems that have been degraded,” she said.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who covers the environment, most often water-quality issues, for NJ Spotlight.

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