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WHEREAS, the Highlands Act signed in August 2004 divided the 850,000-acre Highlands region into two areas: a preservation area, where development would be strictly regulated and a planning area, where development would be monitored; and established a Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council charged to prepare and implement a regional master plan for the entire Highlands region; and

WHEREAS, with lessons learned by the agricultural community in the Pinelands, the Highlands law included a significant exemption for agricultural and horticultural activities and related development in the preservation area; as such, agricultural development and activities in the preservation area are separate and apart from the strict regulations that are imposed by the DEP upon major development in the preservation area; and

WHEREAS, the Department of Agriculture developed and adopted rules to implement the separate process for agricultural development and activities in the Highlands Preservation Area; and

WHEREAS, farmers in the preservation area of the Highlands are greatly concerned about how the strict regulations will impact the equity of their land; although land acquisition and land use tools such as transfer of development rights (TDR) are key strategies in the preservation area, a dedicated funding source and the actual implementation of a viable TDR program remain as critical concerns; and

WHEREAS, in the short term, the State Agriculture Development Committee has directed that an additional $30 million in Garden State Preservation Trust funding for farmland preservation made available through a 2003 public question be used exclusively for the preservation of farms in the Highlands; and

WHEREAS, efforts continue with regard to establishing a dedicated funding source for farmland preservation efforts in the Highlands region, and the Department continues to monitor and contribute to the policy framework and progress toward future implementation of the Highlands TDR program in order to maximize program success and provide equity protection for affected landowners; and

WHEREAS, the Department continues to provide support for the farmer member of the Council and is actively involved in the Highlands Regional Master Planning process, and continues to be an advocate for the agricultural industry in the Highlands region; and

WHEREAS, based on communication with the Highlands Council and its staff throughout the process, it has been our expectation that the regional master plan produced would yield a sustainable and balanced Plan – balanced in terms of environmental protection, economic viability and fairness to landowners, yielding a plan that includes development, redevelopment and preservation; and

WHEREAS, the Highlands Protection & Planning Council released the first draft of the Regional Master Plan (RMP), Land Use Capability Map and Atlas on November 30, 2006 which set forth a framework for protecting the important resources of the Highlands region; and

WHEREAS, after a six-month comment period, six public hearings, 3,500 public comments, staffing changes, including the appointment of a new Executive Director and the hiring of an outside consultant, and numerous public meetings of the Highlands Council and its subcommittees, the final draft of the Highlands RMP was released on November 30, 2007; and

WHEREAS, the revised final draft RMP includes a more detailed mapping system called the LANDS model - delineating three zones – Protection, Conservation and Existing Community and three environmentally-constrained sub-zones, with the ability to represent indicators, capacity and constraints at a scale of 2,500 square feet – including water availability, water supply, wastewater utility capacity and septic system yields. The revised RMP also includes more specific language regarding the use and limitations of clustering in the Agricultural Resource Areas, agricultural preservation priorities and identifies potential TDR receiving areas, including areas with redevelopment and infill potential; and 

WHEREAS, it is evident that a great deal of work went into the development of the draft final plan and LANDS model. However, it is also clear that much more work and public discussions remain ahead; and

WHEREAS, comments on the draft final RMP will be received through February 28, 2008 and three public hearings will be held in February, 2008.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that we, the delegates to the 93rd State Agricultural Convention, assembled in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, on February 5, 2008, urge the Highlands Council and other appropriate officials that, as this planning process continues, they must ensure not only that we protect the natural, agricultural and cultural resources of our Highlands communities but that we do so in a way that is fair and equitable for our farm families and others who are affected in the region.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the draft final plan and LANDS model mapping information should be viewed as the beginning, not the end, of this critical regional planning process that was initiated with the passage of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we urge the Highlands Council and other appropriate officials to consider that the successful implementation of the RMP continues to require a number of critical components:

  1. A sufficient, dedicated source of funding for land and easement acquisition in the Highlands region, separate and apart from whatever funding mechanism succeeds the Garden State Preservation Trust, to permanently protect these lands while compensating property owners. Identifying a funding source prior to the Plan’s adoption would reassure affected landowners that their financial interests are being respected and make for a much more productive and collaborative process. We strongly urge the Council to petition the Legislature to condition Plan adoption on this fundamental issue being addressed.
  2. A viable, private sector-driven TDR program that aids in preserving our important resources while promoting growth in appropriate areas, including the identification of receiving areas both within and outside of the Highlands region that support the Governor’s economic development initiatives and the goals of the State Development and Redevelopment Plan.
  3. Funding for conservation planning to implement soil, water and natural resource conservation practices on our agricultural lands to ensure proper stewardship of these resources into the future.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we direct the NJDA to continue to be engaged in all aspects of the Highlands RMP process, continue to monitor the work of the Highlands Council and continue to be engaged in the effort to identify a dedicated source of funding for farmland preservation in the Highlands region.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we strongly urge the Governor, Senate President and Assembly Speaker to consider the agricultural background, knowledge and/or experience of any new potential Highlands Council members, as well as their residency, to ensure that farmers in the preservation area – who are most directly affected by the RMP – have additional representation on the Council.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we sincerely thank Kurt Alstede for his dedicated and tireless service on the Highlands Council representing agriculture’s interests on the Council. His representation of the landowners in the Highlands has been vital to the survival of agriculture in this region.