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Preservation Challenge for Highlands

February 18th, 2005 by

  • Some 120,000 acres of the Highlands designated as a “preservation area” by lawmakers last year are still subject to limited development under the Highlands Water Protection Act.
  • Another 90,000 environmentally sensitive acres designated as “planning area” are also zoned for development.
  • A study released this week recommends that these lands and others, a total of 300,000 acres, must be placed off limits to development if the state is to protect the region’s water supply, which serves more than half of all New Jersey residents.
  • There is not enough money to buy all the land that needs protection. Experts estimate the shortfall to be $1.45 billion using current land prices.

Source: Environmental Defense (ED), Regional Plan Association (RPA) and New Jersey Future.

When lawmakers passed the Highlands Water Protection Act last year, they left it to a new, 15-member regional council to decide how best to protect the state’s most critical water supply.

The Highlands Council must develop and adopt its regional master plan by June 2006. A successful plan must place critical lands off limits to development, and then carefully control where and how growth occurs to complement preservation efforts and strengthen the region’s communities.

An environmental study released this week finds that purchasing all 300,000 acres critical for conservation would cost $1.9 billion if purchased at today’s average cost to the state of $6,200 per acre. New Jersey Future polled all available sources of land acquisition funds in the Highlands and divided the total, some $450 million, by the projected cost of open space or farmland. We found that, under optimistic assumptions, only some 65,000 acres could be purchased in the next five years.

Fortunately other options are available. The Highlands Act requires the Council to use Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) as a tool to implement the regional plan by transferring growth from conservation areas to growth areas in the planning area, or elsewhere in Highlands counties. TDR allows landowners to be reimbursed for the development value of their land by the TDR bank or by developers, who can buy TDR credits to build at higher densities in designated growth areas. The Act also provides special incentives and planning assistance for towns that receive TDR credits.

Land can also be preserved by clustering development, a technique used successfully in the Pinelands to allow growth without creating “large-lot sprawl.”

Both TDR and clustering will be essential tools in developing a successful master plan for the Highlands region, one that safeguards a critical state water supply and ensures that the Highlands continues to offer a high quality of life.

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