Thursday, April 8, 2010

NJ Highlands Regional Plan

By Karen Dougherty

According to the Highlands Regional Master Plan, written in 2008, the Highlands region of New Jersey is comprised of nearly 860,000 acres of land in northern New Jersey encompassing seven New Jersey counties and 88 municipalities. Historically, this region has enjoyed great success. During the 1800’s, some of the world’s richest iron oxide deposits lead to a prosperous mining industry. The Highlands’ proximity to Manhattan also allowed for a successful farming industry to flourish.

Today the mining industry has been abandoned and the farming industry is much reduced, yet in addition to its beautiful vistas, the Highlands region still offers an invaluable resource – water. Reservoirs and aquifers of the Highlands provide nearly fifty percent of New Jersey residents with their water.

As early as 1907, governor Edward C. Stokes established a Commission to determine the best way to protect this precious water supply. At the time, the Commission stated, “these watersheds should be preserved from pollution at all hazards, for upon them the most populous portions of the State must depend for water supplies.” The Commission proposed that the State acquire vast tracts of this region in order to preserve its integrity.

In 1990, the federal government issued a report stressing the importance of protecting the Highlands. In 1992 the United States Forest Service (USFS) found that over-development in the area threatened the quality of the water. The study recommended that preservation of the area be accomplished through “planning, land acquisition, land management incentives, and education.”

New Jersey passed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act in 2004. The plan utilized a “comprehensive approach, including stringent water standards, emphasis on regional planning, and acquisition of critical lands.” The goal was to balance development and economic growth with a sustainable, healthy water supply.

In an article dated February 25, 2010, the Hunterdon County Democrat stated that NJ Governor Chris Christie has cut $18.5 million in funding for towns that are part of the Highlands Regional Plan. These towns maintain that the funding is needed to properly plan and comply with the Highland’s bill mandates. Paradoxically, the federal government recently doubled funding for land acquisition in the Highlands area, recognizing the importance of protecting New Jersey’s water supply.

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