Last day to submit comments on Highlands Regional Master Plan
In his classic on American government “The End of Liberalism” (1969), Cornell professor Ted Lowi presciently captured the essence of the monumental failure of the Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP):
“Liberal governments can not plan. Planning requires the authoritative use of authority. Planning requires law, choice, priorities, moralities. Liberalism replaces planning with bargaining.”
The core failure of the RMP is its rank cowardice – the Council’s total failure to make choices and use the extraordinary powers delegated by the Highlands Act to preserve the region’s forests and water resources from politically powerful development and landowner interests.
To obscure this deep failure, the Council (and its collaborators) have engaged in all sorts of rhetorical sham and fraud. Shame on them for what Lowi correctly describes as a moral failing (I had the privilege to study under Lowi).
There is a term that fits the RMP perfectly – Potemkin Village – A Potemkin Plan.
Potemkin villages were fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. Potemkin, who led the Crimean military campaign, had hollow facades of villages constructed along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to impress the monarch with the value of her new conquests, thus enhancing his standing in the empress’s eyes.
A modern example of a Potemkin Village was NY City’s attempt to cover-up the desolation of the South Bronx. After President Carter toured the South Bronx in the late 1970’s, photographs of burned out buildings were splashed across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. The South Bronx became a symbol of the urban crisis. To hide this embarrassment, particularly from white suburban commuters, NY City officials used federal highway funds to decorate the windows of abandoned buildings overlooking the Cross Bronx Expressway with fake blinds and flowers.
Since then, the word “Potemkin” has been used to describe similar frauds – attempts to create illusion to disguise an otherwise empty shell.
The Highlands are in deep trouble. Besieged by sprawl, the 800,000+-acre Highlands region is dying the death of a thousand cuts.
That’s why the Highlands Act mandated that the Council map “preservation zones where development shall not occur” and set strict land preservation and water resource standards based on cumulative impacts of all the development that had already occurred.
Outrageously, the Council and the RMP simply completely ignored these mandates.
In 2004, the Legislature passed the Highlands Act, declaring that
“the existing land use and environmental regulation system cannot protect the water and natural resources of the New Jersey Highlands against the environmental impacts of sprawl development“.
To govern land use across the quilt of 88 local jurisdictions, the Legislature created the Highlands Council and directed it to draft a Master Plan to safeguard the state’s drinking water supply; preserve critical forests, natural resources and farmlands. To make sure that the plan was implemented, the Legislature backed planning with sweeping powers to regulate water resources and limit new development.
After three years in the making, the Highlands Council has released its draft Master Plan for public comment. Unfortunately, this draft plan is long on rhetoric and short on effective protections.
The Council shrinks when it comes to laying out solutions. Rather than prepare a protective regional plan that encourages the public and municipalities to get behind it, the Council defers to politically powerful development and landowner interests and abdicates its key responsibilities under the Act. Examples include:
No Preservation in “Preservation Zones”
The most powerful tool in the Act requires the Council to designate preservation zones “where development shall not occur…” and base decisions on cumulative impacts caused by existing development. Yet, the draft plan fails to designate preservation zones or set enforceable standards in consideration of cumulative impacts, as mandated by the Act.
Instead, the draft plan promotes inappropriate cluster development, allows extension of water and sewer lines, weakens septic/groundwater standards, and encourages redevelopment in environmentally sensitive areas and already overburdened existing communities.
Trading Off Clean Water
The plan subverts the primary objective of water protection with a “balancing” test. In 40 different places, the draft seeks to “balance” development and environmental protection. The Act mandates preservation and does not authorize the Council to “balance” water resource protection and development. The Council got it completely wrong and used the failed State Plan and home rule based Municipal Land Use “balancing” framework. Yet the State Plan and MLUL were exactly what the Legislature had in mind when they found that: “the existing land use and environmental regulation system cannot protect the water and natural resources of the New Jersey Highlands against the environmental impacts of sprawl development”
No Remedy for Polluted and Over-Taxed Waters
There are hundreds of contaminated old industrial sites with toxic pollutants in groundwater. Over 65% of streams and rivers fail to meet Clean Water Act standards. Water quality already is “impaired” in 119 of 183 Highlands watersheds.110 of 183 watersheds are in water supply deficits. Yet absolutely nothing in the plan mandates toxic pollution cleanup, restoration existing water supply deficits, or already polluted waters.
Rather than prohibiting new water-intensive development in these watersheds and mandating restoration, the draft employs a sham “conditional water availability” method which allows new development in water deficit or polluted watersheds without requiring up-front restoration measures.
The Legislature envisioned the Council as a regional voice to lead and convince Planning Area towns to do the right thing. But the Council eschews this leadership role and misconstrues “voluntary” standards to mean weak standards.
The plan sets up a negotiation process with towns, instead of clear protective standards that towns should meet. There is so much discretion that virtually any project can be justified. Anyone who has worked on local land use knows exactly how lawyers and engineers for developers exploit any ambiguity – give an inch and they take the forest! This “just trust us” approach for the Highlands guarantees failure.
Ignoring Climate Change
In the Highlands, past is not prologue. One thing global warming science makes clear is that the future will not be like the past – droughts and floods will be more frequent and severe. We are already experiencing 50 to100-year interval droughts and floods in 5 to 10-year cycles.
Highlands streams and rivers completely dry up during summer months. Residential wells run dry. A woman from Ringwood testified at a public hearing that homes there must share water via garden hoses. Forced to conserve scarce water, this woman said that people post bathroom signs that say: “three pees per flush”. Water supply intakes on the Passaic River must be taken off line during the summer due to high pollution levels. The Wanaque reservoir has almost run dry several times in the last decade.
Despite these new climate dynamics, the plan relies on 50-year old stream flow statistics and assumes 30-year old DEP “safe yields” for reservoirs are protective. The plan also depends on flawed DEP estimates of wastewater treatment capacity and water allocations. By using reams of bad data, the master plan sets the Highlands on a course for steady deterioration and piecemeal destruction.
The Governor Must Lead
While providing some autonomy to the Highlands Council to plan responsibly, the Legislature recognized that the critical stakes merited a back-up. To assure protection of vital state interests, the Act vested the final authority with the Governor, who is authorized to veto any action by the Council. Unlike the Legislature, the Council may not over-ride the Governor’s veto.
Given the fatal flaws in the draft plan, it is time for all residents of the Highlands (and the other half of New Jersey that relies on the Highlands for water) to call on Governor Corzine to veto this plan and send the Council back to the drawing board.
In the meantime, if you want to take matters into your own hands, you can comment on the draft plan at http://www.highlands.state.nj.us/njhighlands/draft_nov_2007/final_rmp_color_for_printing.pdf