LETTER – HIGHLANDS ACT Survives Christie: Sierra Club Annual Report Card

It is the 13th anniversary of landmark legislation to protect the Highlands called the Highlands Water Protection Act. This is our 12th Report Card issued by the Sierra Club on the Highlands Act Anniversary based on the Governor, DEP, and other agencies’ implementation of the Act. Even though the Christie Administration still received an F, this is the first year some grades have gone up. The Assembly went from a D+ to a B, the Senate went from a F to a B, Highlands Plan Implementation went from a D- to a C, and Highlands Council Leadership went from a D to a B. The Highlands 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. However, the success of the Act to protect these resources, the Christie Administration has initiated significant rollbacks for Highlands’s protections.

 

Governor Christie – F

 

“On the 13th anniversary of the Highland Act, we are celebrating that the Act is still in place after all of the Christie Administration’s attacks. The Highlands Act is so important because it helps protect the drinking water for over 6 million people. When he first came into office, Governor Christie has said he wanted to repeal the Highlands Act, but the Legislature would never let him. Instead he tried to do it one roll back at a time. Even though we have seen all of these weakenings, we are going into the next Administration with minor damage to the Regional Master Plan. He cannot to propose to weaken more rules or do more damage, so overall we survived. After all of these years, the fact that the Highlands Act is still standing is a victory for the environment,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The Governor is almost gone and most of the things he said were going to happen did not. We successfully stopped most of his rollbacks with minor problems from the Permit Extension Act, powerlines, and pipelines.”

 

Assembly- B+, Senate- B

 

In one of the major defenses against the Governor’s attacks, both houses of the New Jersey legislature determined the Highlands Septic Density Rules violate legislative intent. This year, the legislature passed resolutions called ACR 192 (McKeon)/ SCR148 (Smith) to help overturn the rule. This rule threatens the most environmentally sensitive Forest Preservation Area by increasing development by 400 percent. It is damaging because it will add sprawl and over-development on top of areas that provide our drinking water like pristine trout streams and reservoirs based on arbitrary science. These rules will not only threaten our water supply, but target open space and will increase flooding. Now the DEP must pull down the rule, revise the rule, or move forward. If they move forward we can take the rules to Court.

 

“This year’s report card is important because it is the first in 9 years where grades have actually gone up. The legislature has earned a better grades because they tried to block the Governor’s attempts to weaken the Highlands Act. Both houses of the legislature stood up to the Highlands Septic Density Rule changes that would increase development by 400 percent in the Highlands. They passed an oversight resolution stating the rules violate legislative intent twice, which means DEP know must response whether they will make changes, keep the rules, or withdraw them. If they move forward with them, this resolution can help overturn the rules in Court,” said Jeff Tittel. “USGS still deserves a failing grade because they were paid by DEP to produce a report based on arbitrary science so they could rollback Highlands protections. Instead of using the peer reviewed information that was upheld by the courts, the DEP introduced a new nitrate standard that doesn’t reflect the Forest Preservation Area. This is a huge sellout to developers that puts the drinking water for over 6 million people at risk.”

 

Another attack on the Highlands has come from the Christie Administration’s Flood Hazard Rules. These are a significant rollback to the previous rules that served to protect our drinking water and waterways. These rules will allow for more development in these areas and cause flooding downstream. These rules affect 340,000 acres and more than half of them are located in the Highlands. This especially hurts streams in the Planning Area where there are less protections including the Rockaway River above Boonton Reservoir, Paulin’s Kill and Lubber’s Run in Sussex, Sidney Brook and Rockaway Creek in Bergen County, Black Brook in Morris County, Pequannock River in Passaic County, as well as parts of the Ramapo River.

 

“Along with weakening Highlands Septic Rule, the Christie Administration also rolled back the Flood Hazard Rules that allows more development and affects the Highlands more than any other part in the state. The new rules will destroy stream buffers and headwaters, allowing for more pollution to enter the waterways. Half of the C1 streams in the state are in this region and this will affect close to 180,000 acres of stream buffers, many of which are above water supply intakes and near our reservoirs. This will dramatically affect the planning area because it will open up important streams for more development by rolling back protections,” said Jeff Tittel. “The Legislature originally passed a legislative veto resolution, SCR66, to override the Flood Hazard Rules. When it came time to pass it again and make it official, the Assembly did so. However, the Senate backed out and made a deal with the DEP instead. Now the Rules have gone into effect and will create more flooding and pollution across the state and in the Highlands.”

 

NJDEP – F

 

The DEP moved forward with their plan to log Sparta Mountain that will destroy critical natural resources, violate the objectives and goals of the Highlands Act, and go against the RMP. They are also proposing a mountain bike park at the Norvin Green State Forest. This area was purchased decades ago as open space to protect Highlands streams and reservoirs. Instead of preserving the forest, DEP is proposing to turn this area into a commercial mountain bike park that will cause environmental damage. They have proposed new Forestry rules as part of asham forestry plan that is not about managing our forests, it’s about cutting our forests so wealthy landowners can save money on property taxes. Other threats to the Highlands include the proposed PennEast and Pilgrim Pipelines. However we were able to effectively block these projects so far because PennEast lacks data and we have been able to delay Pilgrim.

 

“The DEP keeps getting a failing grade for protecting the Highlands because they have continued to go along with the Governor’s attacks. This is an administration that targets planning and environmental protections to benefit developers and polluters. The DEP even weakened the Water Quality Management Planning rules that determine where sewers go. By allowing an extension of sewers, it will allow more development in environmentally sensitive areas, threatening our water supply, open space and will increase flooding,” said Jeff Tittel. “The DEP’s Forest Stewardship plan for Sparta Mountain’s Wildlife Management Area will open up the Mountain to commercial logging and destroy its critical natural resources. Their plan will remove the canopy, which is integral to keep the forested greenway intact. It will interfere with public open space that belongs to all of us and is held in the public trust. Even though the DEP failed the Highlands, they cannot propose any new rollbacks.”

 

DEP in Court

We challenged the NJDEP in court on two issues regarding the Highlands. While we lost the court case on protecting High Mountain, we will repeal the decision and continue the 20-year fight. We did see a victory when the court remanded the Bellemead Development Corporation (Bellemead)’s New Jersey Pollution Discharge Elimination System renewal permit back to the NJDEP for further proceedings. The court also agreed that they failed to properly consult the Highlands Council. Under the Highlands Law, they must be consulted for any sewage treatment plant or sewage service area. We were able to stop a sewer plant from dumping more pollution into a Category 1 Stream. We will continue to push for more victories like we had in Bellemead, which was an important step in implementing the Highlands Plan.

 

Highlands Council Staff Leadership – B

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.  The Governor said the Highlands Act was a lie because it did not provide compensation to land owners but he is the first Governor not to provide funding for open space.  After Margaret Nordstrom replaced Christie’s crony, Gene Feyl, things have improved and she has done a good job.

 

“The Highlands Council Staff Leadership grade went up from a D to a B. Even though members has been politicized by the Christie Administration with pro-development political cronies, the Highlands Council hasn’t made any significant changes to weaken plan. Margaret Nordstrom has effectively held off any rollbacks to the Highlands Regional Master Plan and even came out against the Pilgrim Pipeline saying it does not meet the exemptions in the Highlands Act,” said Jeff Tittel.

 

Highlands Council – Members who blocked changes -A 

Highlands Council —  Members Who Tried to Roll Back the Plan- F

 

Those members who have opposed changes to the RMP and blocked them have withstood a lot of pressure and should be applauded. The Council members who have tried to weaken the plan deserve an F.

 

“Since the Council has a split 7-7 vote of Council members who oppose and support changes to the plan, this has blocked any rollbacks and protected the Highlands. The 7 council members who oppose changes deserve an A; those who wanted to rollback the plan deserve an F,” said Tittel.

 

Highlands Plan Implementation – C

 

In the thirteen years since the Highlands Act was passed, progress has been made so Implementation went up from a D- to a C.  Working with the Highlands Council, 59 municipalities and counties have adopted municipal protections in line with the requirements of the Highlands Act both in areas where it is required and where it is voluntary.  The state DEP Highland rules protect contiguous forest and water supply in the Preservation Area while seeing growth in the Planning Area. The Highlands Act protects important natural resources through good planning and environmental safeguards. 59 of the 88 municipalities in the Highlands Region are working toward conformance with the Regional Master Plan (RMP). We have some funding now to protect open space in the Highlands, which is a positive.

 

Future Outlook

 

“For the past eight years, the Christie Administration has tried to pave over the Highlands instead of protecting our drinking water and open space. The people of New Jersey have stood up and fought back against these attacks. For the first time in a long time, Congress has put forth money for Highlands acquisition. As we go forward under the next Administration, we can continue to fight to protect the Highlands and its drinking water. Thirteen years after this landmark legislation was passed to protect the drinking water for 6 million people and over 800,000 aces, the Highlands Act is still in place,” said Jeff Tittel, Director, New Jersey Sierra Club. “The Highlands is like our Yellowstone, but as you know is more important because of all the people who depend on the drinking water from the Highlands region. Now is the time to continue fighting to protect this area and the drinking water it provides. This report card is actually better than the last few years because we have seen many attempts to stop Governor Christie’s attacks on the Highlands. We hope each year the Report Card will improve with the next Governor so the Highlands can be protected.”