Ending a quixotic challenge to New Jersey's Highland Act, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to consider a lawsuit filed by nine property owners seeking to lift development restrictions in Northwest Jersey.
The six-year-old act aims to protect water supplies by limiting development across portions of nine counties.
From the start, however, it encountered opposition from farmers, builders and other landowners who note the lack of adequate compensation for loss of development potential. At times, officials in some northwestern communities joined or encouraged the legal challenges.
But the issues already had been settled decades earlier in similar unsuccessful attempts to overturn growth regulations in portions of the Pinelands in the south and central part of the state. The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to take the case culminates a string of legal defeats for Highlands opponents.Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said opponents were focused on "speculative value on property," although the law permits continued farming and some development.
The result is "a victory for the 5.5 million people who get their drinking water from the Highlands water supply," Tittel said.
Although many residents and politicians remain irate, economics have muffled the outcry over the law. The Highlands Act was passed at a time of soaring property values, when speculative dreams were becoming realty and changing the face of once rural communities.
Since then, though, the Great Recession has pulled the plug on development. Hunterdon and Warren counties, where freeholders spent thousands plotting strategy against the act, saw sudden losses in property values and tax ratables.
Despite the legal successes, implementation of the Highlands plan has been scattershot. But Tom Borden, chief counsel and deputy executive director of the state Highlands Commission, said the latest ruling validates the work that has been done so far.
The dismissal "affirms the decisions of the New Jersey courts, which upheld the validity of the Highlands Regional Master Plan, the boundaries of the Preservation Area," where the most stringent restrictions apply, "and the remedies available to Highlands Region property owners."
Those include the potential for exemptions and waivers of some provisions, and a transfer development rights program authorized under the act.
But Gov. Chris Christie has sent mixed messages about his support for the act. The Daily Record of Parsippany quoted Bob Martin, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, as saying his agencies will review stringent septic system limitations covering about half of the 860,000-acre region.