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Gov. Murphy Promoting Corporate Development Of The Environmentally Sensitive NJ Highlands Region

Highlands Council Releases Economic Plan Designed To Promote Development

Economic Development Oriented Plan Contradicts The Basic Goals Of The Highlands Act

Plan Developed By National Economic Consulting & Engineering Firms

Private corporate planning targets 23,000 acres for intensive new development

HP1 (3)

The ecologically precious Pinelands are not the only place that Gov. Murphy is promoting damaging corporate economic schemes (for Gov. Murphy’s Pinelands scandal, see: “Green Masks Are Off” and this Star Ledger editorial blasting the Gov.)

The Murphy Administration just released its plan for promoting development of the environmentally sensitive NJ Highlands, a million acre forested region that supplies millions of NJ residents with drinking water that was protected by special national model land use Legislation known as the NJ Highlands Act (you can read the Murphy economic plan here) (Gov. Murphy sure put “his stamp” on the Highlands).

[Note: Under the Highlands Act, the Gov. appoints the Chairman who appoints the Executive Director, Lisa Plevin, so she effectively “serves at the pleasure of the Governor.” The Gov. has veto authority over the Council’s minutes. The Gov. has budget control over the Council. If the Gov. did not support this economic plan development, he could have vetoed the minutes or not funded it in the budget. Lisa Plevin has been around government for many years and she would never pursue something this significant without a green light from the Gov.. While it was released by the Highlands Council, Gov. Murphy’s owns this plan.]

In contrast to the Gov.’s economic development vision for the region, the Highlands Act was enacted to preserve and protect the forests and water resources of the region from destruction by rampant development:

The Legislature further finds and declares that, since 1984, 65,000 acres, or over 100 square miles, of the New Jersey Highlands have been lost to development; that sprawl and the pace of development in the region has dramatically increased, with the rate of loss of forested lands and wetlands more than doubling since 1995; that the New Jersey Highlands, because of its proximity to rapidly expanding suburban areas, is at serious risk of being fragmented and consumed by unplanned development; and 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.

The Act bifurcated the Region into a core “Preservation Area” and a peripheral “Planning Area”.

Preservation is the goal of the core Preservation Area and the planning for that core is backed up by strict mandatory DEP regulations. The Act allows only very limited development in the Planning Area that is “compatible” with the severe environmental constraints of the region. The Act does not authorize or encourage economic development planning for the “Preservation Area”. For the less protected “Planning Area”, the Act specifically restricts development, to only that which is “compatible” with protecting the resources of the region. The Highland Act’s only development oriented goal for the less protected “Planning Area” of the region still requires recognition of environmental constraints (my emphasis):

(9) encourage, consistent with the State Development and Redevelopment Plan and smart growth strategies and principles, appropriate patterns of compatible residential, commercial, and industrial development, redevelopment, and economic growth, in or adjacent to areas already utilized for such purposes, and discourage piecemeal, scattered, and inappropriate development, in order to accommodate local and regional growth and economic development in an orderly way while protecting the Highlands environment from the individual and cumulative adverse impacts thereof

The Act reiterates that mandatory compatibility requirement for the limited allowable growth areas of Planning Area:

The council shall set a goal of identifying areas within the planning area that are appropriate for development as voluntary receiving zones that, combined together, constitute four percent of the land area of the planning area, to the extent that the goal is compatible with the amount and type of human development and activity that would not compromise the integrity of the ecosystem of the planning area.

The Murphy economic development plan ignores these goals and requirements of the Highlands Act, and never once mentions the “compatibility” requirements or any other regulatory or science based natural resource constraints (e.g. water availability or reducing greenhouse gas emissions). 

The Murphy economic development plan for the Highlands region was developed by two national corporate economic development consulting and engineering firms, Camoin Associates (they brag of “more than 1,000 completed economic development projects“), and Colliers Engineering and Design  (they brag of managing over $40 billion in assets with annual revenues of $3.3 billion). 

I do not know how much these consultants were paid or how the firms were selected, but I suspect that we will find more corporate cronyism with the Murphy administration.

There are many pressing high priority things that the Highlands Council needs to do to better protect the forests, water resources, and wildlife of the region from the accelerating threats of climate change, over-development, and legacy pollution (which leads to things like harmful algae blooms) – which is their mission under the Highlands Act. 

Perhaps highest on that list would be planning for the transition to zero carbon.

An economic development plan would be about the last thing on any rational, science based planning priority list for the Highlands region.

The Steering Committee for guiding the corporate consultants who wrote the economic plan was comprised of economic development and real estate interests, with no environmental representation. There was no formal public planning process for developing the economic plan.

This is an outrageous violation of fundamental planning and democratic principles which require balanced representation of affected interests, public participation, and transparency.

As such the Murphy economic plan amounts to private corporate planning for the region.

That is not the planning process or the planning goals established by the Highlands Act.

It is a betrayal of the public interest and a complete contradiction of all the public, open, and transparent planning processes that began with Gov. McGreevey’s Highlands Task Force (which I staffed when I was at DEP).

The goals of the economic plan hide behind all the best public relations and greenwashing slogans corporate money can buy (and they call the plan “Going Green”! – see chart on page 9: “Time to Go Green” )

This public relations greenwash sloganeering is reflected in the title of the economic plan itself: (aside from the scientifically meaningless term “sustainability”, note the economic focus – not ecological, water resource, forest, or environmental sustainability):

Of course, this narrow and exclusive emphasis on economic development contradicts the legislative goals of the Highlands Act and the Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP) and the DEP Highlands regulations.

Perhaps that’s why the plan mentions the Highlands Act exactly once and in a way that implicitly disparages the Act’s “mandates” and their limited scope and : (@ p. 24)

While Highlands Act mandates apply only to certain portions of the study area counties, it should be noted that this analysis seeks a global perspective on industry and sociodemographic trends that will guide policy for Highlands municipalities.

“Guide policy for Highlands municipalities? Say what? The Highlands Act stripped land use powers from Preservation Area municipalities and strongly encouraged Planning Area municipalities to “conform” their local land use plans and zoning to the Highlands RMP.

Why is a Highlands Council funded economic plan ignoring this fundamental land use issue and focusing on municipal policy? Land use policy is set by the Highlands Act, the RMP, the DEP regulations, and the Highlands Council, not municipal governments.

And for the record, as I wrote most of them, the “mandates” of the Highlands Act apply only to the Preservation Area as a result of a compromise with powerful political and economic development interests in the region.

The Plan mentions “regulations” just 3 times, and suggests that they are a barrier to development of housing for the region (@ p. 10):

The housing market is feeling pressure from both the supply and demand side. Determining the appropriate land use regulations that will support creative housing solutions will be key to retaining and attracting residents.

“Appropriate land use regulations” have already been adopted and codified in the Highland Regional Plan and the DEP Highlands Regulations. This economic plan is not the forum to reconsider what “appropriate land use regulations” are.

The plan virtually ignores DEP’s Highlands regulations, with one exception that promotes growth: location in a DEP approved sewer service are is one land use development “suitability criteria” (@ p. 94).

The Plan targets 23,000 acres for intensive new development (@ p. 95)

As shown in Table 1 below, the analysis indicates that over 23,000 acres of land are suitable for the development of new industrial manufacturing uses within the Highlands Region.

The location of this development is not known. The GIS maps are in the attachments which were not included in the plan they released.

The Plan analyzes “growth potential” and explicitly documents “locating opportunities” to attract new development, focusing on: (@ p. 94))

1) Industrial manufacturing development 

  • Specialized Manufacturing
  • Biotechnology & Life Sciences
  • Food Production

2) Office development 

  • Financial & Insurance
  • Corporate Offices

With respect to the controversial proliferation of warehouse sprawl, the plan recognizes warehouses (seemingly as an appropriate economic development and a good thing!) but proposes no restrictions: (@ p. 20)

There is continued demand for industrial real estate in the counties. The demand is driven by firms involved in distribution, supported by warehousing as well.

This promotion of development is wildly in conflict with the vision and goals of the Highlands Act.

The “data sources” upon which the economic plan is based (see Attachment A) include the following:


There is not one natural resource, water resource, or environmental data set even mentioned.

While the economic plan gives short shrift to mapped DEP sewer service areas and Highlands growth centers and gives them “suitability points”, the plan does not discourage or recommend prohibition of “inappropriate” and “incompatible”  development outside those areas.

Climate change – in terms of the requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to meet the goals of the NJ Global Warming Response Act or the Gov. recent Executive Order (50% by 2030) – is completely ignored.

The need to reduce GHG emissions is not even mentioned in the economic plan. How can economic growth planning ignore carbon constraints?

There is no consideration of the energy or environmental or water resource or forestry impacts of the economic development promoted by the plan. No cumulative impacts considered (as required by the Highlands Act). No environmental justice impacts. No environmental impact analysis. None.

How could this be?

The economic plan limits consideration of climate change to “adaptation” to climate impacts.

And even the climate adaptation planning sections ignore the massive development pressures that will be created by people migrating out of coastal areas that are inundated or destroyed by sea level rise and storms or the people displaced by increasingly frequent and severe flooding.

These people will have to relocate somewhere and it will likely be in higher elevations like the Highlands.

On top of all these egregious flaws, I want to close by noting a deeply disturbing pattern:

1. Once again, the Murphy administration has promoted a corporate friendly Neoliberal economic scheme that is wildly out of step with NJ’s historical policy emphasis on environmental protection, strict regulation, and regional planning. The highly controversial initiative is developed largely behind the scenes with little or no public awareness or involvement.

2. Once again, the Governor’s economic development initiatives are worse for the environment than Gov. Christie’s. Christie attacked the Highlands Act and sought to promote economic development by rolling back the DEP septic density standards. But at least he did so openly and was held accountable for it. Murphy, no so much.

3. Once again the media fails to cover the issues.

4. And, perhaps most disturbing of all, the environmental watchdogs have failed to bark. No, they are too busy with promoting pub crawls and automobile tours and fundraising.

Julia Somers was “interviewed” by the corporate consultant who prepared the plan and was the sole token environmental interest that served on the Technical Advisory Committee, so she was fully aware of the initiative and apparently did nothing to warn the public or represent the many activists and environmental groups that fought for passage of the Highlands Act. What a fucking sellout.

Julia and Eliott Ruga at the Highlands Coalition now join Carleton Montgomery and  Ed Potosnak on the cowardly Gov. sycophant list and my shit list.

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