The Sierra Club believes that the Highlands are in more jeopardy now than in any time since the passage of the Highlands Act. On the sixth anniversary of the Highlands Act, the Sierra Club has released its annual Highlands report card showing this key region of our state is under attack. Governor Christie has drawn a bull's eye on the Highlands with transition team reports that call for eliminating the Highlands Council, Executive Orders that put our water supply at risk, and funding cuts that will invite sprawl and overdevelopment.
Budget cuts, Red Tape Review Committees, Executive Orders and secret stakeholder meetings with special interests will take away many important protections in the Highlands region and prohibit full implementation of the Highlands Act. The Highlands Council still has numerous vacancies. Of the 15 slots, five are vacant.
This year, we rate the actions on protections for the Highlands an F. This grade is not a reflection of the Highlands Act itself, but rather the lack of implementation of the act and the plan.
As New Jersey is heading into another drought, we are concerned that the efforts to undermine the Highlands will have even a bigger impact on New Jersey's water supply.
The grade is based on the poor direction we believe the Christie Administration is taking protections of the Highlands. Governor Christie's failure to lead and his hostile rhetoric on Highlands protections, combined with severe funding cuts for key Highlands initiatives, has created concerns that implementation of the Highlands Act will stall and eventually be dismantled.
The grade is an F, however the real grade is scary because we don't know how deep the cuts will be and how much weakening will eventually happen. Given the rhetoric, people should be alarmed about the future of their water supply.
The Highlands are the source of drinking water for 5.4 million people. Polluting our water supply because of overdevelopment in the Highlands comes with a hefty price tag. A clean water supply is vital to our state's economy, as our three biggest industries (pharmaceutical and petro chemical, food production, and tourism) depend on it to thrive. A 2004 study by the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission concluded that if the Highlands were to be developed, it would cost $50 billion more to treat our water.
Many of our concerns with Highlands protections are due to the ineffectiveness of state agencies, poor decisions made by Governor Christie and the Legislature, and a lack of leadership by the Highlands Council.
The Highlands are under attack. The Governor hasn't said exactly what he plans to do, but there are ominous signs that indicate there will continue to be rollbacks of important protections in the Highlands.
Highlands funding has been slashed dramatically — reduced from $12 million to $4.4 million in 2011. Governor Christie is cutting $18 million in grants for municipalities to help them conform to the Highlands Regional Master Plan. For municipalities in the Preservation Area conformance is mandatory, without this money municipalities will be forced to raise taxes to conform. In the Planning Area, towns that have opted in are not likely to conform because funding is nonexistent. The Payment in Lieu of Taxes fund — which goes to towns to help make up lost tax revenue from open space has been cut by $10 million statewide. Most of the money from that fund goes to towns in the Highlands.
Governor Christie is also cutting $12 million from the Highlands Stabilization Fund to towns in the Highlands to help meet budgetary shortfalls. Highlands Staffing will also be cut by $800,000, resulting in fewer staff people to help towns conform to Highlands Plan and to manage the Transferable Development Rights program.
The war against the Highlands has started. Removing the funding doesn't make sense unless you want to kill the Highlands Plan and weaken protections in the Highlands.
An Administrative Order implemented by the Governor extends until April 2011 the DEP implementation of Water Quality Management Planning Rules that are more than 13 years in the making. The delay of these rules will affect towns in the Highlands Planning Area.
Governor Christie's Executive Order Number 2 states that New Jersey cannot have regulations that are stricter than federal regulations. That means regulations the New Jersey DEP has protecting the Highlands will be invalid because they are stricter than federal laws.
In addition, the Board of Public Utilities recently approved PSE&G's expansion of the proposed power lines through the Highlands. These lines will cut through the Highlands, increasing water and air pollution, and leaving a scar on the land that will ruin the view shed. The Tennessee Gas Pipeline has been granted a lease of public lands and they are moving forward on a pipeline that will create a 23 mile scar through the Highlands.
Republication legislators have been calling for the repeal of the Highlands Act and we're concerned how much influence they'll have on the administration, given some of the rhetoric we've heard so far. The Christie Administration may not outright repeal the Highlands Act but it might restrict its implementation, eliminate its funds, stack the board with pro-development members and weaken DEP regulations, making it essentially meaningless.
We are very concerned that some of the cornerstones of Highlands protections are still not in place. Six years later:
- We still don't have a stable source of funding for open space.
- We still don't know how much water is in the Highlands for development or that can be exported for growth in the state.
- We have not yet clearly identified enough no-build areas for preservation.
- There is still not an environmentalist from the Highlands on the council.
- Towns trying to implement plan, and while we see positive action at the local level, the administration may try to slow that process.
In this year's report card, we have identified some positive things that have happened in the last year. Unfortunately, the positives have been overshadowed by some outrageously bad things.
On the positive side:
- The Legislature passed a Transfer of Development Rights Bill that allows for Highlands development credits to go statewide and not just within the Highlands counties
- More than three-quarters of towns in the Highlands have either signed up or said they want to conform to the plan. However, this was before Christie's cuts and attacks on the Highlands.
- The US Supreme Court upheld the Highlands Act.
- The council also recommended against certain Wastewater Plan Amendments that were inconsistent with the Highlands Plan.
These few positives have been vastly outweighed by negatives:
- Governor Christie's budget cuts, Red Tape Review Committees, Executive Orders and secret stakeholder meetings with special interests are designed to strip the Highlands of important protections and prohibit full implementation of the Highlands Act.
- The Susquehanna Roseland power line is being pushed through after an $18.6 million donation from PSE&G.
- The State House Commission approved a lease of public lands for the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, permitting a 23 mile long scar through the Highlands for the meager sum of $185,000.
- Five vacancies on the Highlands Council are causing it to be ineffective and undermining environmental protections.
Since its inception the protections for the Highlands have been plagued by compromise and weakenings. The Highlands Taskforce came up with a series of recommendations and there were many compromises and weakenings on those recommendations. The Highlands Act itself was a series of compromises and was weakened further when Senator Sweeney held it in the Senate. The writing of the Highlands Plan was a series of trade-offs and weakenings. And now the Christie Administration wants to weaken it further to the point that there will be no protection left in the Highlands Act.
The Highlands Act was passed to protect the drinking water for more than half of the people in New Jersey, and Governor Christie's budget cuts and executive orders put that drinking water at risk. These cuts and executive orders will not only undermine preservation in the Highlands they will mean more sprawl and therefore more pollution in our waterways.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club