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Highlands Plan for Citizens

 

1. What Citizens Should Know about the Highlands Regional Master Plan
2. Why Conformance to the Plan is Important
3. How You Can become Engaged with the Process
4. Become a Highlands Advocate

 

What Citizens Should Know about the Highlands Regional Master Plan

Recognition of the critical importance the watersheds of the New Jersey Highlands as a source of clean drinking water dates back to at least 1907 when the NJ Legislature established “The Potable Water Commission” to recommend how the State’s diminishing clean water supply could be protected. The Commission found that “the Highlands watersheds are the best in the State.” In the 1920’s, with the establishment of the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, the Highlands became the source of drinking water of many of the State’s northern industrialized cities.

After World War II, the rate of development in the Highlands increased to the extent that the quantity and quality of Highlands waters were threatened. In 1988, environmental organizations pooled their resources to form the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. Its mission was to garner support from local, state and national governments to preserve the water and other environmental and cultural resources of the Highlands Region.

Partly as a result of the Coalition’s efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted studies of the region in 1992 and 2002. These studies found that “unprecedented development pressures… place the extraordinary and essential resources of the Highlands at risk.”

By having achieved national recognition for the critical importance of the region’s natural resources, the Highlands Coalition pressed on. In 2003, Governor Jim McGreevey established the Highlands Task Force to make recommendations regarding preserving the Highlands resources and regulating growth while maintaining the region’s economic vitality. The recommendations of the Task Force led to the enactment of the Highlands Act and the formation of the NJ Highlands Council in 2004.

The Highlands Council was tasked with the creation of the Regional Master Plan (RMP).  This document contains all the policies, objectives, and goals for development and natural resource protection at the regional level as the Highlands grows into the future.  The RMP identifies specific resources, growth strategies, and ecosystem services and explains why they are important not just to the region but to the entire state.  The legislature clearly outlined what the goals of the RMP are in the preservation area, the region within the Highlands designated as having a higher resource value and therefore stronger protections, and the planning area.

Preservation Area:
(1) protect, restore, and enhance the quality and quantity of surface and ground waters therein;
(2) preserve extensive and, to the maximum extent possible, contiguous areas of land in its natural state, thereby ensuring the continuation of a Highlands environment which contains the unique and significant natural, scenic, and other resources representative of the Highlands Region;
(3) protect the natural, scenic, and other resources of the Highlands Region, including but not limited to contiguous forests, wetlands, vegetated stream corridors, steep slopes, and critical habitat for fauna and flora;
(4) preserve farmland and historic sites and other historic resources;
(5) preserve outdoor recreation opportunities, including hunting and fishing, on publicly owned land;
(6) promote conservation of water resources;
(7) promote brownfield remediation and redevelopment;
(8) promote compatible agricultural, horticultural, recreational, and cultural uses and opportunities within the framework of protecting the Highlands environment; and
(9) prohibit or limit to the maximum extent possible construction or development which is incompatible with preservation of this unique area.

Planning Area:
(1) protect, restore, and enhance the quality and quantity of surface and ground waters therein;
(2) preserve to the maximum extent possible any environmentally sensitive lands and other lands needed for recreation and conservation purposes;
(3) protect and maintain the essential character of the Highlands environment;
(4) preserve farmland and historic sites and other historic resources;
(5) promote the continuation and expansion of agricultural, horticultural, recreational, and cultural uses and opportunities;
(6) preserve outdoor recreation opportunities, including hunting and fishing, on publicly owned land;
(7) promote conservation of water resources;
(8) promote brownfield remediation and redevelopment;
(9) encourage…appropriate patterns of compatible residential, commercial, and industrial development, redevelopment, and economic growth, in or adjacent to areas already utilized for such purposes, and discourage piecemeal, scattered, and inappropriate development…
(10) promote a sound, balanced transportation system that is consistent with smart growth strategies and principles and which preserves mobility in the Highlands Region.

The RMP accomplishes these protections by further dividing the Highlands into zones based on the natural resources available there.  For example built-up areas with sewer service are in the Existing Community Zone while areas covered in forest are in the Protection Zone and agricultural lands are in the Conservation Zone.  There are also zones for lake communities and environmentally constrained sub-zones for two zones, which have stronger protections.

The RMP essentially serves as a guide to where and how future development will occur in the Highlands, using natural resource inventories and natural resource capacity to dictate smart growth and prevent suburban sprawl. 

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Why Conformance to the Plan is Important

All of the Preservation Area must be in conformance with the RMP but the Planning Area is optional.  There are 88 towns in the Highlands.  Five are completely in the Preservation Area; 47 are partially in the Preservation Area and partially in the Planning Area; 36 are wholly in the Planning Area.  Any town in the Highlands is wholly in the Highlands region.  Although it is protected by the Highlands Act, the Planning Area is still susceptible to sprawl and resource depletion if the municipality decides not to “opt-in” and apply the policies and objectives of the RMP to all of its land.  There are myriad reasons why a township and its citizens could decide to “opt-in”.

The Highlands region is a critical source of drinking water for 5.4 million people throughout the state.  While residents depend on the groundwater and aquifers, surface water and reservoirs serve over 10 counties.  The RMP contains numerous policies and objectives for protecting these resources and preserving the quality of our aquifers. 

There are 183 sub-watersheds in the Highlands region.  Currently 114 of these sub-watersheds are in deficit.  The lack of availability in water supply will be a major factor in what future development can go forward in the Highlands.  The RMP protects our finite water supply from over development and further degradation, which will prevent tremendous expenditures on water filtration in the future. 

The RMP includes protections for groundwater recharge and wellhead protection areas.  Wellhead protections prevent development activities that could potentially pollute our well water supply.  Groundwater recharge areas are critical for ensuring that surface water is successfully filtered back into our aquifers.  The protections afforded to our water resources through conformance to the RMP will ensure that the Highlands can continue to provide clean, plentiful drinking water throughout the state.      

Conformance will promote smart growth!  The RMP stops the strain on the school system, police and fire departments, and infrastructure (traffic) that results from increasing residential development.  The tax revenue created by residential homes does not compensate for the increased use of these public services, resulting in higher property taxes where residential development is rampant.  Open space is in fact the best ratable for a municipality as it costs nothing to maintain and increases the value of properties around it.  Conforming to the RMP will result in more open space preservation, higher property values, and less development that generates tax increases which in turn will stabilize the tax rate.  Tax Stabilization Funds will also be available where appropriate to ensure that the implementation of the RMP has no negative effect on the municipal budget.

The protections afforded to scenic vistas, historic and cultural resources, agricultural lands, and sustainable economic development ensure that the Highlands will not become an example of urban sprawl.  As the most densely populated state in the union, sprawl is a constant threat and the RMP will keep intact the character and quality of life in our communities.  Not only do the regulations in the RMP prevent dense development but conformance to it safeguards municipalities from developers’ lawsuits, if they attempt to force development that conflicts with the RMP. 

Regional planning yields a myriad of benefits as can be seen in the Pinelands region.  The Pinelands Commission was formed in 1979 and has utilized a comprehensive management plan whose benefits can be seen today.  This CMP is similar to the RMP in that the Commission reviews and certifies all municipal zoning and land-use ordinances and master plans.  Today homes in the Pinelands region have a higher median sales price and lower property taxes than their neighbors outside the region.  The effective tax rate in the Pinelands (ratio of taxes to property value) is much lower compared to its neighbors.  These successes result from a regional planning approach and the Highlands is now taking a similar path with hopes to achieve comparable outcomes.
Pinelands Economic Indicator Report: http://www.state.nj.us/pinelands/landuse/econ/

Through conformance, affordable housing obligations can be met using the RMP build-out numbers that incorporate sustainable, natural resource availability, rather than the higher projections from the Council on Affordable Housing that do not consider these limitations.

A spreadsheet outlining the different housing obligations is available by clicking here.

Resource protection and critical habitat preservation are two of the main goals of plan conformance.  By opting in to the RMP, future growth will be dictated by sustainable resource availability (water, land, sewer and septic capabilities) to ensure that smart growth, not resource depletion, occurs. The Highlands region provides drinking water for 5.4 million people living between Bergen County and the City of Camden.  By conforming to the RMP, Highlands municipalities can better protect these water supplies and the recharge areas, ground and surface waters that continue to provide it.  As New Jersey’s population continues to increase, the importance of clean, potable water cannot be underscored enough.  By protecting these resources now we avoid spending millions in tax dollars on water filtration and treatment systems in the future. 

The Highlands is home to a number of threatened and endangered species that will be further protected through conformance to the Regional Master Plan.  Species such as the bog turtle and Indiana bat are already endangered and are highly susceptible to habitat fragmentation from development.  The Highlands Council has determined that 61% of the Highlands region can serve as potential habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species.  The RMP works to protect the biodiversity of the Highlands by restricting what development can go forward in these areas and requiring the minimization and mitigation of negative impacts that do occur.     

The Highlands Council provides grants and technical assistance to municipalities for conformance so this process does not rely on municipal resources.  By conforming, the municipality receives priority open space preservation funding, especially important to farmers in conformed towns who wish to participate in the Farmland Preservation program.  

Conformance with the RMP is the equivalent of, and will be treated as, State Plan Endorsement which also opens up state funding and planning and technical assistance for the conformed municipality.

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How You Can become Engaged with the Process

If you live in one of the communities that has not opted in to the RMP for both the Planning and Preservation below are ways to encourage your municipal leadership to get involved:

Local officials need to know that their citizens support their “opting-in” and conforming to the Regional Master Plan so that they may protect the natural resources and unique character of their community.  By attending planning board and town council or committee meetings you can reach out to local officials either during the public comment period, or before or after the meeting, to let them know how important conformance is for your town.

Connecting with your local community conservation group is another way to become involved.  Many of these groups are already working on promoting conformance.  If there is no such group, become involved and form such a group and stress the importance of this issue to others!  Local groups across the Highlands are organizing petition drives and hosting informational meetings in town to attract attention to the issue.

Many such groups are members of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.  Check out our list of members and see if there is a group by you by clicking here.

You can organize a petition drive in your community! Friends of Holland Highlands has been successfully collecting signatures on a petition to the Town Council in support of conformance.  Check out their template by clicking here.

Hold meetings to educate your community on the importance and benefits of conformance.  Citizens to Save Tewksbury has been holding such meetings and attending town committee meetings in support of their township opting-in.  Check out a sample flyer promoting a public meeting with the Executive Director of the Highlands Council by clicking here.

The New Jersey Highlands Coalition also makes presentations about conformance for local groups, organizations, and associations and would happily visit your community to discuss the benefits of conformance.  If your group is interested please call our office at (973) 588-7190.

If your municipality has submitted conformance petitions to the Highlands Council they can be viewed on the Council’s webpage by clicking here.

The petitions now being submitted to the Council are for “basic conformance”.  Municipalities will still need strong citizen support to achieve full conformance, which will include septic density standards, water use and conservation management plans, natural resource restoration plans, and other benefits for your community. 

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Become a Highlands Advocate

With the goal of having at least one Highlands Advocate in each of the Highlands' 88 municipalities, we offer training and networking opportunities in exchange for your participation in this program. For more information about the New Jersey Highlands Coalition Highlands Advocate program, follow this link.

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