the Highlands law really means
Thursday, January 6, 2005
By JAN BARRY
If you live in North Jersey's Highlands, chances are you're confused
- and maybe alarmed - by the state move to preserve water supply
streams by restricting development in much of the region.
So let's try to deal with that.
There has been lots of speculation flying through the seven-county
the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act's effects, especially
on the little guy who owns a home and some acres to spare. That's
happened despite officials' efforts to explain the facts of the
Yes, you can still add a bedroom to your house.
No, your mountain town won't be forced to accept more development
just because it doesn't have as many water-supply streams as the
next town over.
And yes, if your town needs another school, it can build it.
After years of talk about saving the Highlands from being paved
over, a sweeping preservation plan was enacted last summer by
the state Legislature and signed by then-Gov. James E. McGreevey.
As part of the effort, the act created a regional Highlands Council
that will fine-tune what and where development will be allowed.
It may ultimately take case-by-case decisions by that council
to answer many of the questions that persist, including many from
anxious municipal officials.
The designated "preservation" area stretches from western
Bergen County south and west to Warren County. In North Jersey,
its 395,000 acres encompass all of Ringwood and West Milford and
portions of Mahwah, Oakland, Wanaque,
Bloomingdale, Pequannock, Kinnelon, Vernon and Hardyston. The
area, mapped out by the state Department of Environmental Protection,
has reservoirs and water supply streams that provide drinking
water to more than half of the state.
The law also designated a "planning" area that encompasses
the rest of the Highlands region, another 400,000 acres. This
area includes all of Pompton Lakes, Riverdale and Butler and parts
of many towns that also are home to designated preservation areas.
Altogether, 87 towns are in the preservation area, planning area,
What's the difference between preservation area and planning
area when it comes to development? In the preservation area, the
new law set stiff state-administered restrictions - mostly, allowing
only small-scale development per lot. But in the planning area,
the law allows local "home rule" decisions on development.
If officials in those areas accept higher-density development,
such as in town centers, the state will offer them extra aid.
Not everyone is happy with the intrusion of state power in what
has been local control over development. Warren and Hunterdon
counties are threatening to file a lawsuit over the entire act.
Farmers in those counties maintain that the
Highlands law "has already reduced their land value,"
according to the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
Busting the myths
Addressing the first meeting of the Highlands Council two weeks
ago, state Environmental Commissioner Bradley Campbell said he
wanted to dispute some "myths and misrepresentations."
A large part of the state's preservation strategy is to buy up
land or its development rights. Noting that, Campbell said that
when such purchases are made, "the legislation quite clearly
states we must honor the pre-act value of property" - that
is, the market value just before the law was signed in August.
At that point, the real estate market was booming and land values
had been escalating sharply.
Campbell did not address the concern of some farmers that they
won't be able to sell to developers at prices that offer even
heftier cashouts for rocky cornfields and pastures.
He did say growth won't be entirely halted in the preservation
area. New single-family homes still are allowed in restricted
circumstances, for instance. Public buildings and churches can
be built. And additions to existing homes aren't even regulated
by the act.
Campbell noted that development will be encouraged in the planning
area on land that is not environmentally sensitive and can support
higher density development. How much growth, he emphasized, will
be a local decision.
"There will have to be a dynamic discussion with local officials,"
he said. "What do they want?"
Waiting in limbo
Despite that general assurance, Grace Maiello, a Wanaque school
trustee, can't wait for the council to address individual cases.
"This Highlands thing comes along - I'm at a loss now,"
said Maiello, whose family owns a nine-acre parcel adjacent to
the Wanaque Reservoir. The residentially zoned parcel, which she
hoped to sell to a developer, is near the Passaic County borough's
business district on Ringwood Avenue. Maiello's parents ran a
private swimming area there, called Indian Springs, for about
Now that site is in the Highlands preservation area, putting
it off limits for major development. If it were about three blocks
east, on the other side of Ringwood Avenue, it would be in the
planning area and subject only to local regulations.
"I don't know what I can do," she said.
Within the preservation area, future development is restricted
to single-family homes or small businesses on one acre or less.
That is, unless a major project already has local and state approvals
or gains a special permit from the state
Department of Environmental Protection.
"If I can't do anything with it, and I'm still paying taxes
on it, it's taking [both development value and tax dollars] away
from me. I'm totally in limbo," said Maiello. "I am
really waiting for someone to explain what can be done."
Maiello is weighing whether to wait for the Highlands Council
to draft a master plan for the preservation area, and then rule
on individual cases, or to sell the parcel for open space preservation.
2 sides of a mountain
Across the Ramapo Mountains in neighboring Oakland in Bergen
County, Mayor John Szabo also is trying to make sense of the new
"It's put a hold on things, because people are unsure how
the process will work," said Szabo, who is the township planning
director for Wayne. For reasons that officials have not elaborated,
Wayne is outside the official Highlands map even though it shares
a steep ridge with Oakland. The Oakland side is in the preservation
area, because state officials decided this ridge is a key part
of the Ramapo River watershed, which supplies water for the Wanaque
Reservoir and for the Passaic Valley Water Commission. The two
utilities provide water to more than 2 million North Jersey residents.
The Highlands law was drafted to provide better protection for
water supply streams like the Ramapo River, which flows along
the northeastern edge of the Highlands and through Mahwah, Oakland,
Wayne, Pompton Lakes and Pequannock.
Most of Oakland's portion of the preservation area is state forest
or county parkland. The borough is seeking state funds to help
buy the former Camp Todd tract high on the ridge. That purchase
would halt the advance of bulldozed streets and housing lots of
a 400-unit development called Ramapo River Reserve, which rims
the river and climbs right up the ridge.
Szabo is waiting to see how the Highlands law affects wooded
parcels on the ridge along the Wayne border. Oakland was sued
by one developer over a Planning Board denial. The state map lists
that land in the preservation area. What
happens next may be determined in court.
Much of Oakland, including its business district and existing
neighborhoods, is in the planning area. But like other municipalities
in the planning area, it doesn't necessarily have to accommodate
heavier development. Such towns have the
option of accepting increased development, as part of a program
to transfer development rights that the Highlands Council is drafting.
Or they can voluntarily adopt the stringent regulations the regional
council is to set for the preservation area.
As a professional planner, Szabo likes the idea of creating a
"I hope out of the entire process we get some sound planning
that will protect this very important area," he said, "and
that the Highlands Council creates a balance between preservation
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Highlands Law, Unconstitutional?