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HIGHLANDS HIGHLIGHTS: Governor Murphy Lays an Egg in the Highlands... and it Stinks!

On December 14, 2016, candidate Phil Murphy met with the New Jersey Highlands Coalition’s Policy Committee to discuss how a Murphy Administration in Trenton would support the goals and objectives of the Highlands Act. One of our priorities was that the next Governor, the one who would succeed Chris Christie, would recast the Highlands Council into an effective regional planning body, returning it to what was intended by the Highlands Act. The Highlands Council’s main goal—now that it had successfully drafted and adopted a Highlands Regional Master Plan—was to promote municipal conformance to the Plan in the one half of the Highlands region where participation is voluntary, in the Planning Area. The Highlands Regional Master Plan is a plan that does the difficult work of balancing natural resource protection with compatible growth and development, to maintain a stabile economy and high quality of life for all of New Jersey.

Any momentum established by the Highlands Council towards that goal came to a screeching halt with the election of Chris Christie in 2010. Christie was no fan of the Highlands Act, or any planning concept. But he particularly went after the Highlands Act, its rules and the Highlands Council. As he acknowledged at his Town Hall Meeting in Hackettstown in March 2011, he didn’t have the authority to amend or repeal the legislation, but what he could do was to stack the Highlands Council with members who were, like him, hostile towards the Act. And that’s exactly what he did. Of the 15-member body, Christie succeeded in appointing 3 members who were vocal opponents of the Highlands Act and then named one of them as the Council’s Chairman. Soon after, the newly cast Council voted to fire the Council’s very effective Executive Director. A political hack was made Executive Director, staying in the job not a day more than the 3 years needed to qualify for his state pension.

Candidate Murphy promised us on that day that if elected Governor he would consult with us on any nominations to the Highlands Council.

From the first week of the Murphy Administration, we were in touch with the Governor’s appointments office, making recommendations that satisfied the complex 3-D chess rubric of Council membership—a balance of political party, municipal and county representation, public members and elected officials, and those who would not be blocked by their State Senator under Senatorial Courtesy.

Seven years into Murphy’s eight-year term in office, Governor Murphy finally nominated a full slate of Highlands Council members. It is a slate that would have made Chris Christie proud!

Two nominees are elected officials from Highlands Planning Area municipalities that have shown no interest in working with the Highlands Council since it was formed. Ann Skoog, an elected official from White Township, Warren County, represents a municipality that has failed to comply with the legal requirement to adopt the Highlands Land Use Ordinance for the portion of the municipality that lies within the Preservation Area.  There is no information about them on any social media platform or in a Google search. The one water resource professional we have consistently recommended was not nominated. The last of the Christie appointees who was put on the Council to undermine the work of the Council is not being replaced, despite his term having expired in 2014.

There are no people of color on the Council, and none were nominated by the Governor. We have consistently recommended the vice chair of the Newark Environmental Commission, an African American woman active in EJ issues in her community in Newark. Newark, with it five water supply reservoirs that are buffered by a 35,000-acre, mature, continuous canopied forest, making
it the largest landowner in the Highlands, has an interest in maintaining water quality that is in alignment with the Highlands Act. Yet it has never been represented on the Highlands Council. Her nomination would have corrected that shortcoming.

This is a slate of nominees that appears to be vetted, if not hand-picked, by the District 23 Senator Doug Steinhardt. Senator Steinhardt is a principal of the law firm of Florio, Perrucci,  Steinhardt, Cappelli & Tipton. The partners of this firm are mayors, municipal elected officials, county commissioners, municipal attorneys and developers of western Warren and Camden counties,
which they firmly control. It looks like they will now control the Highlands Council too.

The Highlands Council has an excellent Executive Director who truly wants to return to its mission—to protect and restore the water and other natural resources of the Highlands in order to secure a water supply for 70% of New Jersey residents while promoting compatible economic growth and development. The current chair of the Council is also committed to seeing these goals and objectives realized. But they need a deliberating body of Council members who will support their vision. What the Governor has nominated however, is the result of political dealmaking that has other priorities than protecting the region’s resources, resources that help maintain a stable economy and high quality of life for all of New Jersey, for today and for future generations.

Governor Murphy, New Jersey deserves better than this!

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