Municipal officials assessing impact of the Highlands Act

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:15

    Sparta-Two days prior to announcing his resignation last Thursday, Governor James E. McGreevey signed a historical piece of legislation into place that will affect Sparta residents for years to come. Known as the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, the legislation places building limitations that will affect a large portion of land spanning across the northern portion of the state. Sparta Mayor Scott Seelagy, Councilman James Henderson, and Township Planner David Troast all attended last week's signing ceremony. Approximately 45 percent of Sparta land falls within the Highlands region, and for the past few months, Sparta officials have expressed concern over how the Highlands Act would affect the township. In an interview with Seelagy before the new law was passed, the mayor said that he was looking forward to seeing the Highlands project in final form. "I feel that it is very important to have open space to protect waterways," said Seelagy. "But it must also have balance when it comes to property rights." He said that people who will be unable to develop their property because of Highlands legislation should be compensated in some way for the loss of their once developable land. He also said that he would like municipalities to be compensated for the loss of revenues from these lands. "I think it can be done if the bill is properly crafted to not only ensure preservation, but to respect property owners and a municipality's right of home rule," said Seelagy. In an interview with Troast after attending the signing of the Highlands Bill, he said that it could take a matter of years for Sparta to fully see the affects of the new law. The state has 18 months to develop a master plan for how the legislation will be enacted. "I think in time, we will see a lot of positive results from this," said Troast. "In the meantime, we may see some suffering of homeowners and municipalities." The plan calls for compensation for both land owners and municipalities. However, municipal officials don't know how much will be set aside for that purpose. "There are some measures in the bill for assistance, but whether there is enough or not remains to be seen," said Troast, adding that property owners, who fall within the highlands, may very well begin filing for tax appeals on their property. With the Highlands Act in place, developable property that once generated revenue may be reassessed at a significantly lower price. Some development will still be allowed on the land that falls within the region, however, any construction would be heavily restricted minimizing the potential for ratables for the municipalities. At last count, Troast dropped the maximum number of new residencies that can still be built in Sparta from 850 to 750 units Both Troast and Seelagy have concerns, but agree that the highlands bill can be beneficial for everyone involved if it is enacted correctly and carefully. "If they are true to the bill and compensate land owners and municipalities fairly, I see no negatives at all, other than some lost potential jobs," said Troast.