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Wrong to sacrifice drinking water to development

John Weingart, Chairman, Highlands Council.

Response to today’s Op-Ed:
“Wrong to Pick On Highlands Master Plan”
(and just who is the bully and who is being picked on here?)
Last week, the Highlands Council approved a controversial Regional Master Plan (RMP). The vote finally came many months past the deadline established in the Highlands Act. But 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. 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 RMP’s flaws.
Today, 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:
Wrong to Pick on Highland Master Plan”
Of course, Weingart has direct access to the Governor and therefore had no need to take to the editorial pages to get his opinion injected into policy decisions..
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 is designed to divert 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 forests and 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.
[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 in Feb. because specific changes have been made to the Plan to fix what he misleading claimed were public “misconceptions”. end Update]

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