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State of New Jersey-Department of Environmental Protection-DEP Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act Guidance
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1. What is the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act?

The Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act is a law signed in August 2004 that preserves open space and protects the State's greatest diversity of natural resources including the precious water resources that supply drinking water to more than half of New Jersey's families. The Highlands Act documents the geographical boundary of the Highlands Region and establishes the Highlands Preservation Area and the Highlands Planning Area. It required the Department to establish regulations(pdf) in the Highlands Preservation Area and that the  Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council develop a regional master plan for the entire Highlands Region.

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2. Why is protecting the Highlands Region important?

The Highlands Region is a vital source of drinking water for more than half of New Jersey’s families, yielding approximately 379 million gallons of water daily. In addition to water resources, the Highlands Region contains exceptional natural resources such as contiguous forest lands, wetlands, pristine watersheds and plant and wildlife species habitats. The region contains many sites of historic significance and provides abundant recreational opportunities. Approximately 110,000 acres of agricultural lands are in active production in the Highlands region.

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3. How did this legislation come about?

On September 19, 2003, the Highlands Task Force was created through Executive Order. The Governor charged the Task Force to provide recommendations within six months on how best to advance conservation efforts, smart growth, regional planning and water resource protections in the region. The task force called for the identification of a Preservation Area in the Highlands to protect a core area of the most sensitive land, which the Legislature should then officially designate by statute. The Act was signed into law on August 10, 2004.

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4. What activities are regulated in the Highlands Preservation Area?

All "major Highlands development," as defined by the Highlands Act, in the Preservation Area is regulated and will require DEP approval, unless otherwise exempted by the Act.

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5. Do the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act or Highlands rules have an impact on my property?

To determine if the law affects your property, you can enter the property location into DEP's interactive mapping system to determine if the property is in the Highlands Preservation Area or Planning Area or you may submit an application for a Highlands Jurisdictional Determination.

If your property is located within the Highlands Planning Area, then the DEP Highlands rules do not apply to your project.

If your property is located within the Highlands Preservation Area and your proposed project does not meet the definition of major Highlands development, then your project is not subject to the DEP Highlands rules.


If your property is located within the Highlands Preservation Area and your proposed project meets the definition of major Highlands development, then your project may be regulated. Some activities and projects, however, may be exempt. Click here to see a list of exemptions. To apply for an exemption, known as a Highlands Applicability Determination from the DEP, click here (pdf)

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6. What standards does DEP use to review regulated activities?

The DEP standards for review of regulated activities (i.e., major Highlands development) in the Highlands Preservation Area are known as the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act rules (Highlands rules).

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7. How can I determine if my project is exempt?

The Highlands Act set forth provisions for exemptions which are found in subchapter 2.3 of the Highlands rules . Certain activities, such as the construction of a single family home, may be exempt.

To apply for an exemption, known as a Highlands Applicability Determination, from the DEP, click here (pdf), for a copy of the Highlands Applicability Application Form. If you have questions about the prior approval exemptions, please contact the Division of Watershed Management, at (609) 984-6888.

Exemptions based on prior approvals

Exemptions based on prior approvals are found at in subchapter 2.3 of the Highlands rule.

Only certain local and DEP approvals issued before March 29, 2004 will be eligible for this exemption.

If you received a DEP or local approval after this date and have started construction and your property is located within the Preservation Area, you may be in violation of the Highlands Act. Construction should cease immediately until it can be determined that your project is exempt from the Highlands Act or until the DEP issues a Highlands Preservation Area Approval.

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8. Can I make an improvement to my house if I am in the Highlands Preservation Area?

Yes. Within the Highlands Preservation Area, the new law exempts "any improvement to a single-family dwelling in existence on the date of enactment of this act, including but not limited to an addition, garage, shed, driveway, porch, deck, patio, swimming pool, or septic system."

The exemption applies only to the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act and does not exempt applicants from any other state or local regulations (ex. freshwater wetlands, flood hazard area).

To determine if your property is in the Highlands Preservation Area, click here to use DEP's interactive mapping system.

To apply for an exemption, known as a Highlands Applicability Determination, from the DEP, click here (pdf), for a copy of the Highlands Applicability Application Form. If you have questions about the prior approval exemptions, please contact the Division of Watershed Management, at (609) 984-6888.

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9. If a home was constructed after August 10, 2004, after being deemed exempt (exemption #3), would a homeowner be allowed to add an improvement, such as an addition, garage, shed, porch, deck, pool, etc. (improvements listed under exemption #5)?

Improvements to legally existing single family dwellings in existence on August 10, 2004 qualify for Exemption #5. In the scenario where the home was not legally existing as of August 10, 2004, but was found exempt under exemption #3, the homeowner would be allowed up to one year after the Certificate of Occupancy was issued for the home in which to add the improvement. There would be no need to apply for an exemption to allow the improvement as it would be considered to be part of the exempt project that it was previously reviewed under.

In addition, improvements to single-family homes that were previously determined, by the Department,  not to meet the definition of  Major Highlands Development must be located within the delineated metes and bounds if the project was required to have a deed restriction.

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10. Who do I call if I have questions about the Highlands rules?

  • To determine whether your project is regulated by the Highlands Act or qualifies for an exemption or if you are consistent with a Water Quality Management Plan contact the Division of Watershed Management, at (609) 984-6888.
  • To inquire about the Highlands rules, contact the Division of Land Use Regulation at (609) 633-6563.
  • For questions about water supply, water allocation and wells within the Highlands Preservation Area, contact the Water Supply Administration, at (609) 292-7219.
  • For information about treatment-works approvals or the New Jersey Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NJPDES) within the Highlands Preservation Area, contact the Division of Water Quality at (609) 292-4543.
  • If you believe that you have observed a violation of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, contact the DEP Hotline at 1-877-WARN-DEP (1-877-927-6337).

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