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Response to Weingart on The Highlands Plan

John Weingart, Chairman, Highlands Council.

[Update #1 – unfortunately, we have a pattern of Weingart lashing out at critics – on February 12, 2008, I wrote:
“An absolute donnybrook (I’m an old hockey player, and I haven’t heard that word used in ages) erupted after Council Chairman John Weingart opened the hearing. Weingart went on the offensive and took the highly unusual step of reading a press release by the Highlands Council. The press release chastised the public – primarily the environmental critics of the RMP – for 7 “misconceptions” of the controversial plan.”
Weingart was wrong then, as changes have been made to the plan to fix those “misconceptions”. end Update]
Last week, the Highlands Council approved a controversial Regional Master Plan (RMP). Many months past the deadline established in the Highlands Act and after more than 3 years of planning, just minutes prior to the final vote on the RMP, a series of major amendments were introduced by 3 Council members to strengthen the Plan and fix significant flaws. All these amendments were defeated, with little discussion or staff analysis. As a result, environmentalists are petitioning Governor Corzine to Veto the Council’s actions and direct them to remedy the Plan’s flaws.
In the midst of this highly charged debate, John Weingart, the politically appointed Chairman of the Highlands Council, has written an extraordinary Op-Ed. Weingart, in classic “blame the messenger” fashion, does not focus on defending the Plan he voted for, but instead engages in a fact free attack on environmental critics of the Plan. See:
Environmentalists and the Highlands plan
John Weingart is not a journalist (who can be fired) or elected official (who can be voted out of office). From someone with Weingart’s responsibilities and expertise – he not only serves as Chairman of the Council but has an extensive background in land use planning and environmental regulation – one would expect not only leadership and vision, but substantive analysis and opinions based on science and law, not pure politics.
But one’s reasonable expectations would be dashed by reading Weingart’s Op-Ed.
Weingart makes three basic assertions – each a sweeping conclusion with no supporting evidence:
1) environmentalists politicize policy debates, mount political campaigns, and have significant political power and influence, equivalent to that of developers and the business community;
2) “[The] Highlands Council … adopted the most environmentally-protective, comprehensive regional master plan in the state’s history. It is a model for the rest of the nation.”;
3) “the Highlands Plan is already more protective than required by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. … municipal officials complained the plan will allow little, if any, additional building; farmers argued the plan will severely limit their ability to sell their farms to housing developers.”
That’s all folks – really. Not a fact, a law, or a policy or planning analysis in any of it. Totally devoid of substance.
But it’s worse – Weingart’s attack knowingly ignores and diverts attention from the debate over the substance of the RMP; the purpose of last minute amendments that were defeated; or the essence of the environmentalists’ criticism.
Obvioulsy, Weingart can not defend the indefensible – like allowing new development to occur where there are existing deficits in water supply; or dense “cluster” developments that destroy the character of surrounding farmland and pollute groundwater; or destruction of sensitive stream buffers.
Mr. Weingart – a self described “environmentalist” – doesn’t want to talk about any of that.
So, for readers interested in the debate on the RMP – here is a link to the letter to Governor Corzine that sets forth the grounds of the environmentalists’ criticism and basis for amendments to the Plan:
Download file
With respect to the amendments, Dave Pringle of the NJ Environmental Federation – a target of Weingart’s attack – has posted a summary of the amendments. According to Dave:
“The 11 votes were:
1 ban on development in water deficit areas (amendment 1)
2 further restrict development in water deficit areas (alternate amendment 1)
3 close all loopholes limiting 300′ buffers for all Highlands waters (amendment 3a)
4 close fewer loopholes to strong stream buffers (amendment 3b)
5 close some loopholes to strong stream buffers when developing farmland (amendment 4)
6 require background level nitrate standard (amendment 5)
7 require a less strict but still strict (2 ppm) nitrate standard (amendment 6)
8 eliminate inclusion of open space in septic density calculation (amendment 8a)
9 require stronger nitrate standards in Existing Community Zones (amendment 8b)
10 limit map adjustments (amendment 11)
11 adopt final plan
The pro-env., pro-public health position prevailed on only the 2nd and 8th votes and even then barely so and in watered down forms.”

I have posted several substantive critiques of the RMP, most recently this – if this DEP standard to protect groundwater from septic is legally overruled by the Courts, the RMP would suffer a fatal blow:
NJ Farmers threaten your water supply
Back in February, I posted an analysis of the November 2007 draft Plan – however, since then, some revisions of the Plan have ben made that address my specific criticisms, so this analysis is no longer current or accurate. Similarly, since February, additional flaws in th Plan have been identified:
Potemkin Plan – Highlands Plan an empty shell
The bottom line: serious discourse on protecting the Highlands is frustrated when appointed leaders like Weingart abdicate their leadership roles and engage in specious attacks on environmentalists.
And is is outrageous when the little substance that is injected in the debate comes not from well staffed expert government organizations like DEP and the Highlands Council, but from caring citizens and volunteer efforts of watchdogs like myself.

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  1. byramaniac
    July 25th, 2008 at 12:52 | #1

    Nice work Bill!
    Of course the spineless clowns at the Star-Ledger pulled the OpEd piece from it’s online home after Weingart was called out (in a rational and concise manner) by many people for his hypocritical diatribe – check for yourself, go to:
    and you get this message:
    “Not Found
    The requested URL /njv_oped/2008/07/environmentalists_and_the_high.html was not found on this server.”
    Here is what the OpEd piece said:
    Environmentalists and the Highlands plan
    Posted by John Weingart July 24, 2008 2:53PM
    There was a time when environmental groups in New Jersey were relatively powerless. Generally overwhelmed by the money and political influence of developers and construction unions who were often allied with local government officials, their views only occasionally had influence. Perhaps partly as a result, many parts of the state today are bedeviled by dysfunctional land use patterns and serious threats to water quality and other environmental resources.
    But the political equation has evolved. Although their financial resources may still be limited, the state’s environmental organizations are no longer David fighting Goliath. Rather, they are a well-organized force ready to rapidly respond with concerted campaigns to any action their leaders conclude might have an impact on an environmental resource, law or regulation.
    I believe New Jersey often benefits from the advocacy of these groups, but agree with their positions or not, one has to admit environmental groups now have the ability to help shape public debate and to influence and sometimes determine outcomes.
    Consider the Highlands Council which this month adopted the most environmentally-protective, comprehensive regional master plan in the state’s history. It is a model for the rest of the nation.
    Yet almost all the news coverage surrounding this accomplishment has focused on whether the plan should have been even more restrictive. This despite that almost every policy in the Highlands Plan is already more protective than the requirements of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and sister agencies in other states. And that municipal officials complained the plan will allow little, if any, additional building while farmers argued the plan will severely limit their ability to sell their farms to housing developers.
    But, when we met earlier this month to consider adopting the plan after three-and-a-half years of meetings and public hearings, all but one of the 11 proposed amendments introduced by council members were designed to further limit the development the plan might allow.
    Some of us on the council felt the plan already met the mandates of the Highlands Act and that these amendments were unnecessary and, in some cases, undesirable.
    Nevertheless, during the course of our eight-hour meeting, members of the public and several council members put forward convincing arguments for further strengthening the policies so that all or part of seven of the 11 proposed amendments were passed and incorporated into the final plan, which we then adopted by a 9-5 vote. Two of those voting “no” found the plan too restrictive, while three felt it didn’t go far enough.
    The response of most environmental leaders has been over-wrought criticism of the entire plan. Their comments to the media — perhaps cleverly but certainly irresponsibly — suggest that the Highlands Council “would have homeowners drink their own septic,” and that “the governor better tell people to buy bottled water.”
    They demand that Gov. Corzine take action to prevent this plan from taking effect.
    Former Gov. Brendan Byrne, today universally acknowledged as an environmental hero, has observed that when he was in office environmental activists were the only constituency to whom you could grant 97 percent of what they wanted and then hear only about the other 3 percent. That seems to remain the case today.
    Interest groups of all kinds need to take strong positions and often push for more than may seem possible in order to be effective. That type of advocacy from New Jersey environmental groups has produced significant benefits for the state, not least among them passage of the Pinelands Act in 1979 and the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act in 2004.
    Unfortunately, though, their leaders not only continue to focus on the 3 percent they didn’t get, they also seem to assume that anyone who disagrees with their positions is, as the NJ Environmental Federation said of the majority of the Highlands Council, “more concerned about parochial, special and their own re-election interests than they are the public’s interest.” Apparently, none of us can possibly be as publicly-spirited as they are unless we agree with their every position.
    I am an environmentalist. I believe that strong government action at the state and national level is necessary to assure that air and water quality improves, that natural resources are protected and that we move toward land use decision-making that protects open space and dramatically reduces energy usage and traffic congestion while helping people of all incomes to have good homes and good jobs.
    And as an environmentalist, I believe that the Regional Master Plan approved by the Highlands Council, while far from perfect, provides a very strong framework for protecting the Highlands.
    John Weingart is chairman of the New Jersey Highlands Council and associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.

  2. isbjorn1
    July 25th, 2008 at 13:16 | #2

    Bill, terrific as always.
    Scott, Thanks for bringing back the op-ed. I clicked on the posting 5 times before I realized it really had been removed.
    Now let’s see if they remove yr comment.

  3. nohesitation
    July 25th, 2008 at 14:06 | #3

    byramaniac – in fairness to the Star ledger, it could be that John Weingart himself deleted the post. All writers at this site can deleted their posts or comments to their posts.
    isbjorn1 – I doubt Star Ledger editors would delete comments that were not profane, libelous or otherwise inappropriate. Don;t think editor here get involved in content or political disputes. n

  4. nasalum
    July 25th, 2008 at 14:07 | #4

    John Weingart is absolutely right in his post. rather than being vilified by Bill Wolfe and the 6 members of PEER, he, and the commission should be applauded for crafting a meaningful land use program that will protect our water sheds, relieve congestion, reduce sprawl and preserve open space.
    Mr. Wolfe accuses John Weingart of “shooting the messenger,” but it appears to me that it is you, Mr. Wolfe, who is holding the gun.

  5. byramaniac
    July 25th, 2008 at 14:11 | #5

    Wolfe – with the deletion of the original Weingart OpEd from the S-L site, the comments also were dropped, so here is a repeat of mine:
    Posted by byramaniac on 07/25/08 at 10:47AM
    Read your own summary, John:
    “I believe that the Regional Master Plan approved by the Highlands Council, while far from perfect, provides a very strong framework for protecting the Highlands.”
    This is what it REALLY says:
    “I believe that the Regional Master Plan approved by the Highlands Council is far from perfect.”
    Very far…and far from the mandates of the Highlands Act.
    You, an environmentalist? I guess you believe the Tooth Fairy is an “economist” as well!

  6. nohesitation
    July 25th, 2008 at 14:14 | #6

    nasalum – PEER membership is confidential, a status that has been upheld by the Courts.
    If Weingart is so proud of the RMP, why doesn’t he defned it substantively?
    If he’s so proud of the arguments he did make, why has his Op-Ed been delted from the site?
    BTW, I posted a letter from environmental groups with membership that that represent well over 200,000 people.
    Obviously, there are many thousands more NJ residents that support a srtong RMP that are not mebbers of envrionmental groups.
    You lie by making my argument appear to have the support of just 6 people. A total and cowardly LIE.
    Last, I don’t “vilify” I hold public officials accountable to law and science. AND I support a hand gun ban and strong gun regulation!

  7. nohesitation
    July 25th, 2008 at 14:16 | #7

    byramaniac – sorry, I diodn’t realize that the Op-Ed post was by the Star Ledger, and not Weingart himself.
    I now will go buy the paper.

  8. byramaniac
    July 25th, 2008 at 14:29 | #8

    Another post in response to the original Weingart OpEd was:
    Posted by JeffTittel on 07/25/08 at 11:02AM
    I think he voted against protecting the Highlands as revenge from all those years trying to find a town to take our nuclear waste. For ten years Weingart was head of The Low Level Nuclear Waste Siting Commission most of the towns that rejected his idea were in the Highlands like; Bethlehem Twp, Ringwood, Rockaway, West Milford, Oxford, Franklin ,Vernon, Ogdensburg etc…He was the most disliked person in the Highlands then and now again. He wrote a book about it called “My Mind is a Terrible Waste” or something like that.
    A “DavidPringle” response pos was there also, but I did not manage to copy it in it’s entirety. Maybe he will repost here?

  9. DavidPringle
    July 25th, 2008 at 15:42 | #9

    Below’s a version of my post deleted by the Ledger when the pulled Weingart’s oped, which evidently is to run in Monday’s paper but someone spilled the beans early and then tried to seal the can. The Ledger has denied our request for comparable time in the paper edition without qualification.
    Sounding a bit defensive, John, aren’t we? Perhaps it’s because, despite his assertions to the contrary, HE VOTED THE WRONG WAY ON EVERYONE OF THE KEY 11 VOTES LAST WEEK and many key issues weren’t even voted on, e.g. clustering.
    How did the rest of the Council vote? Council members’ pro-environment, pro-public health grades were as follows:
    • Scoring a perfect 100% were Tim Dillingham, Tracy Carluccio & Debbie Pasquarelli (R-Warren);
    • Providing support often were Corzine appointees and Freeholders Liz Calabrese (73%, D-Bergen) and Tahesha Way (64%, D-Passaic);
    • Disappointing were Corzine appointees Bill Cogger (R-Morris, 18%) and Freeholder Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon, 27%) as well as Corzine Administration official Janice Kovach (D-Hunterdon);
    • Voting a nearly perfectly wrong 9% was former Mayor Mimi Letts (D-Parsippany) who at one point last Thursday suggested Jersey City just get its water elsewhere (Parsippany is home to Jersey City’s main reservoir) as if that would be easy to do and good public policy; and
    • Joining Chairman Weingart in voting a perfectly wrong 0% were Kurt Alstede, Scott Whitenack (D-Morris), Freeholder Jack Schrier (R-Morris), and Freeholder Glen Vetrano (R-Sussex).
    For some details of the votes see Bill’s blog above. Other details will be posted on the web soon by me but the chart’s format becomes unreadable when pasted here. Other details will have to wait for the Council to post on their website, which 7 days later they have yet to do.
    If you would like the full scorecard and/or future url email me at dpringle@cleanwater.org
    Also the unattributed author of 2 (drinking septics and a majority of Counil members prioritizing something other than the public interest) of the 3 quotes John references snidely, I proudly stand by them.
    We are not seeking perfection we’ll take good but the plan fails to clear even this lower standard. And we have compromised plenty — every major environmental accomplishment of the past 5 years in NJ has included key concessions by the enviro. community — Clean Cars, Global Warming Response Act, diesel, open space funding, Highlands Act, c1, wqmp, and flood rules, et al.
    Doesn’t sound like petulant bullying to me!

  10. DavidPringle
    August 1st, 2008 at 13:10 | #10
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