WHEREAS, the Highlands Act, signed into law 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, and as such, agricultural development and activities in the preservation area are part of a separate process from the strict regulations that are imposed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection upon major development in the preservation area; and
WHEREAS, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture developed and adopted rules to implement the separate process for agricultural development and activities in the Highlands Preservation Area; and
WHEREAS, the Highlands Council is currently accepting applications from property owners in the Preservation Area to determine whether their properties are eligible to serve as sending zones and receive an allocation of Highlands Development Credits (HDCs); and to assist property owners, the Highlands Council has launched a web-based application called the HDC Estimator that provides information regarding the potential range of HDCs that a property may be eligible to receive; and this tool, the allocation application itself, and information concerning the allocation process may be found on the Highlands Council website.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that we, the delegates to the 95th State Agricultural Convention, assembled in East Brunswick, New Jersey, on February 9, 2010, strongly support the establishment of a dedicated funding source for farmland preservation efforts in the Highlands region.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we encourage the Department to continue to monitor and contribute to the future implementation of the Highlands TDR program in order to maximize program success and provide equity protection for affected landowners.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we support the TDR Conservation Restriction developed in coordination with the Department and the Highlands Development Credit Bank Board and approved by the Highlands Council.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that following the Governor’s Executive Order in 2008 that directed and resulted in the transfer of $10 million from the State TDR Bank to the Highlands Development Credit Bank, we strongly urge the HDC Bank to be funded through an alternative funding source in the future.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we encourage the continued coordination between the State TDR Bank and the HDC Bank Board to further the implementation of TDR programs in the Highlands and statewide.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, in fairness to landowners affected by the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, that we urge the Legislature to authorize a dual appraisal valuation process – similar to the provision in the Garden State Preservation Trust Act that expired June 30, 2009 – for expenditure of any new farmland preservation funding to allow appraisals to be based on either current zoning and environmental laws and regulations or those in effect as of January 1, 2004 – whichever yields the higher value.
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 effected by the RMP – have additional representation on the Council.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we encourage the Governor to do a complete independent review of the Highlands Act and its programs as to its effect on the Highlands Region municipalities, economy and agricultural viability, and thereafter to determine the proper appointments to the Highlands Council.
Farmers in the preservation area of the Highlands are greatly concerned about how the strict regulations will impact the equity of their land. Land acquisition and land use tools such as transfer of development rights (TDR) are key strategies in the preservation area, and a dedicated funding source and the actual implementation of a viable TDR program remain as critical concerns.
In the short term, the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC) 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. As of November 2008, the SADC had earmarked all of that special Highlands funding for specific projects.
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 framework and progress toward future implementation of the Highlands TDR program in order to maximize program success and provide equity protection for affected landowners.
In October 2008, the Highlands Council appointed the Highlands Development Credit Bank Board of Directors, which includes public/farmer member Dale Davis from Chester. It is anticipated that the first meeting of this newly appointed Board will take place in February 2010.
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.
Based on communication with the Highlands Council and its staff throughout the process, it has been the 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.
The Highlands Protection and 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.
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.
The revised final draft RMP includes a more detailed mapping system called the LANDS model - delineating three zones – Protection, Conservation and Existing Community zones, and three environmentally-constrained sub-zones, and the revised RMP also includes more specific language regarding the use and limitations of clustering in the Agricultural Resource Areas and agricultural preservation priorities, and identifies potential TDR receiving areas, including areas with redevelopment and infill potential.
It is evident that a great deal of work went into the development of the draft final plan and LANDS model. However, it was also clear that much more work and public discussions remain ahead.
Comments on the draft final RMP were received through February 28, 2008 and three public hearings were held in February 2008.
The Highlands Council continued to hold additional meetings from April 2008 through July 2008 and released revised sections of the final draft RMP for public review.
The Highlands Council adopted the draft final RMP on July 17, 2008 and submitted the minutes of that meeting to the Governor’s Office for approval.
Many environmental organizations came out in opposition to the adopted RMP and urged the Governor to veto the Plan as they believed that it did not meet the most critical mandates of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act.
Ultimately the Governor approved the Highlands Regional Master Plan on September 5, 2008 and signed Executive Order 114 that outlined additional measures regarding the Plan, including:
- the reauthorization of the Garden State Preservation Trust and consideration of a statewide TDR program to meet the agricultural preservation and open space needs of the Highlands region.
- a reasonable extension of the requirement for dual appraisals beyond the June 30, 2009 time period, set forth in the Highlands Act for agricultural preservation and open space acquisitions.
- $10 million dollars in funding to the Highlands Development Credit Bank from the State TDR Bank.
- requiring the Highlands Council to work with COAH, the DEP and DCA to review the growth projections for consistency with the RMP and to create realistic opportunities for municipalities to address their actual growth share obligations.
- clustering to be part of center-based, transit-oriented or mixed-use development or a development that is consistent with the state’s smart growth principles and municipally or regionally planned through Plan Conformance.
- requiring the DEP to adopt and enforce strict standards for water mitigation projects, and ensure that no water allocation permits are issued for development projects or Water Quality Management Plan amendments approved within a HUC14 subwatershed that is in, or is anticipated to be in, a deficit of net water availability until a Municipal Water Use and Conservation Management Plan is approved by the Highlands Council and fully implemented.
Highlands Council staff has developed Plan Conformance Guidelines and Standards for each of the goals, policies and objectives of the Highlands RMP to assist municipalities with meeting the requirements of the Plan Conformance process, which was scheduled to begin in January 2009.