In a setback to environmental groups, the state Supreme Court yesterday found the state acted appropriately in issuing permits for the construction of a 204-unit housing project on ecologically sensitive land in the preservation area of the Highlands.
The decision reaffirms a ruling by a state appellate court to give the go-ahead to the long-litigated project on an 85-acre tract on High Mountain in Oakland. The New Jersey Sierra Club and New Jersey Highlands Coalition challenged the permit granting the developer an affordable housing exemption from the Highlands Act.
The court decided the issue on narrow grounds, agreeing with the appellate division that the project qualified for an affordable housing exemption because a requirement to build the development within three years after receiving all final approvals had not been triggered.
“In this instance, when making the administrative determination, the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) was well within its bounds to conclude that Bi-County had not yet secured all final approvals, and, as a result, the three-year expiration period had not expired,’’ the court found in a eight-page decision.
“We’re extremely disappointed,’’ said Elliott Ruga, policy director for the Highlands coalition. “This land has extraordinary value that wasn’t considered by the Supreme Court or the appeals court. It’s going to be a tremendous loss for New Jersey’s natural resources and biodiversity.’’
The areas include sensitive wetlands, endangered species and upland forests. Earlier versions of the project had been blocked by the DEP, but the developer Bi-County Development took the agency to court. The Christie administration settled the case in court, but the permits were challenged by the two environmental groups.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the groups hoped the Murphy administration would have stepped in and try to reach a settlement with opponents of the project, but that never happened.
“Now’s there going to be 200 homes on top of High Mountain, one of the most scenic parts of the Highlands,’’ he said. “This is the kind of project the Highlands Act was supposed to stop.’’
The project would be built atop High Mountain, which offers a scenic vista of the New York City skyline in the distance, and is one of the largest pieces of forested land on the eastern side of the Highlands, according to Tittel.
The Murphy administration should move forward and try to acquire the land from the property owner before it is developed, Tittel said. The Trust for Public Land has been in discussion with the owner about purchasing it for open space preservation for several years, Ruga said, but so far, the negotiations have proved fruitless.