Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

The Highlands Law From Here


Photo of the Newburgh Beacon Bridge What the Highlands law really means
Thursday, January 6, 2005


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 region about
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 law.

Facts like:

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, or both.

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 40 years.

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 law.

"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 regional plan.

"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 and growth."


Copyright © 2005 North Jersey Media Group Inc.

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