Editor’s note: The following column is from the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Aug. 10th marked the 16th anniversary of landmark legislation to protect the Highlands, known as the Highlands Water Protection Act. This Act put in place critical protections for one of the most environmentally sensitive and ecologically important areas in our state. The Highlands is home to numerous threatened and endangered species and some of the state’s most beloved parks including Round Valley, Waterloo Village, Lake Hopatcong, Wawayanda, and Pyramid Mountain. The region provides drinking water to 6 million people.
“When the Highlands Protection Act was passed 16 years ago, it was considered landmark legislation. Its aim is to protect the drinking water for 6 million people and prevent sprawl and overdevelopment for over 880,000 acres. Instead of celebrating the implementation of the Act, it is still a work in progress. The rules still haven’t been updated to deal with climate change, more frequent storms and chronic flooding. Christie’s appointments are still on the council blocking Highlands Protections. Governor Murphy needs to put pressure on Senator Sweeney to move his nominations to protect the Highlands,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The Highlands are also at risk because the DEP keeps granting waivers and letting developments go forward. They also aren’t moving to clean up superfund sites in the area like the Ringwood site.”
The Highland Council’s main responsibility is the Highlands Regional Master Plan and its implementation with municipalities. The RMP, which was adopted by the Highlands Council in 2008, needs to be updated to deal with new challenges such as climate change and chronic flooding.
“Unfortunately, after 16 years the grade for the Highlands is still incomplete. Christie’s appointments have never been replaced and are trying to run the Council. They haven’t updated the Highlands Regional Master Plan since it was first adopted over a dozen years ago to deal with climate change or chronic flooding. It also needs to be updated to take a holistic look at contiguous forests and ecosystems in the highlands. They need to look at working with communities to implement appropriate agricultural, historic, and eco-tourism. They also need to expand the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, which moves growth from the Preservation Area and brings it to appropriate growth areas in the Highlands and in other areas,” said Tittel.
Only one of Governor Murphy’s nominees has been approved for the Highlands Council. Dr. Daniel Van Abs will replace Tracy Carluccio on the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council. The Murphy Administration has made two other nominations to the Highlands Council, but they have been blocked in the Legislature. The nominees include William “Bill” Kibler and Wynnie-Fred Victor Hinds.
“Governor Murphy took office three years ago but only one of his Highlands nominees have been approved. Dan Van Abs was a good appointment but he replaced environmentalist Tracy Carllucio instead of one of Christie’s people. There’s still much left to be done, including replacing other members of the Council and removing dangerous rollbacks put in place under Christie. DEP needs to fix Christie’s rollbacks like the Flood Hazard Rules, Water Quality Management Planning Rules, and Wetlands Rules,” said Jeff Tittel. “As we celebrate the 16th anniversary of the Highlands Act, the DEP and EPA also need to move quickly to clean up toxic sites in the area. The Ringwood Superfund Site has been endangering the people and environment of Ringwood for decades.”
When Governor Christie came in he tried to politicize the Highlands Council by getting rid of many of its members and stacking the Council with his political cronies. The Governor took money away from the Council for town conformance and eliminated monies for payment in lieu of taxes for open space.
“New Jersey still isn’t funding the implementation of the Highlands Act. Governor Christie took money away from the Highlands Council for plan conformance and the Highlands Equalization Program. He also eliminated monies for payment in lieu of taxes for open space. Governor Murphy and the Legislature have failed to replace that funding,” said Jeff Tittel.
Phoenix Energy is seeking to build a 663 MW power plant on the site of a former paper mill on the Musconetcong, one of the few rivers in the state classified as a Category 1 (C1) stream, the designation given to the most pristine waterways.
“DEP has been siding with development and looking the other way when it comes to Highlands Protections. They have been giving out a lot of exemptions and waivers. Not only did they allow the 663 MW Phoenix Energy power plant on the Musconetcong River but they are also looking at allowing power lines to come in for the Tennessee Gas Compressor Station. The Highlands Council needs to re-examine policy on infrastructure that allows for pipelines such as PennEast to cut through the Highlands,” said Tittel. “DEP has also been promoting inappropriate growth in the Highlands by permitting for redevelopment without looking at environmental impacts. They need to fix the rules and update them instead of allowing these exemptions.”
In order to protect the Highlands, the DEP needs to pull down weakened rollbacks put in place by Christie. Governor Murphy needs to make appointments to the Highlands Council and work to get them pushed through the Legislature. New Jersey also needs to stop fossil fuel projects in the Highlands and end the practice of ‘stewardship’ projects that act as an excuse for logging such as in Sparta Mountain.
“Passing the Highlands Act was a real victory at the time. It is still a victory, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done. It’s imperative that the DEP removes weakened regulations such as the Wetlands Rules and Flood Hazard Rules that lead to more development and pollution in the Highlands. DEP also needs to stop their logging plan for Sparta Mountain. Governor Murphy must work to push his appointments to the Highland Council through the Legislature so that these members act in the best interest of the Highlands and not developers. He also must stop dangerous infrastructure such as power plants from being built in the region,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The Highlands is one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the region and is a major source of drinking water for up to 6 million people that includes pristine trout streams, and reservoirs. We must do more to protect this precious region.”