New Highlands rules perplex local officials

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    SUSSEX COUONTY-Sussex County municipal officials and residents are still trying to assess how gravely the stringent Highlands Act regulations announced this month will impinge upon local land use plans. Of the 126,000 acres in Sussex County that come under Highlands Act provisions, approximately 73,000 have been set as preservation acreage, where development is highly limited, if not wholly prohibited. Controlled development will be permitted on the remaining land. The legislation affects regions of Andover Boro, Andover Township, Byram, Franklin, Green, Hamburg, Hardyston, Hopatcong, Lafayette, Ogdensburg, Sparta, Stanhope, and Vernon. To take effect immediately are rigorous interim regulations and fees that apply to residential and commercial building, storm-water management, septic systems and habitats for threatened or endangered species. The rules require 88-acre lot zoning in forested areas and 25-acre lots in other areas. The permanent rules will go into effect a year from now, in May 2006, after the Highlands Council has reviewed them for 45 days and amended them if necessary, and the public and affected municipalities have reviewed the amended plan. Those who violate the rules wittingly or unwittingly will face fines as heavy as $25,000. Hardyston Township Manager Marianne Smith said that after her first reading of the 241-page document, she has serious concerns that the new regulations may be unnecessarily ironhanded. "I'm going to review every page of this document, and examine every nuance," said Smith. "People are very concerned about whether the new laws will affect the value of their property." In a May 7 announcement, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell stated: "The tough environmental rules released today are critical for the protection of New Jersey's Highlands region. These rules also begin a close partnership with the Highlands Council to ensure that the final regulations work in concert with the regional master plan." An essential feature of the regulations is a new procedure for obtaining permits and a new fee structure. The Highlands Council, which was formed in late 2004, will be a key player in the DEP's push to enforce the regulations. Also involved will be the State Planning Commission, and the Departments of Community Affairs, Transportation, and Agriculture. Because the provisions of the Act are complex, the DEP urges developers and land owners to obtain a Highlands Resource Area Determination that specifies what they are allowed to do with their land before they even begin applying for permits. A Highlands Resource Area Determination is a study that focuses on a detailed map of a parcel of land that describes its features, including water sources, possible historical sites and threatened or endangered species, if any. The determination governs whether the land may be developed, and if so, to what extent. Obtaining such a determination could be costly: The basic fee begins at $750, plus $100 for each acre of land studied. If the regulations do permit building on the land, purchasing a state building permit will cost a landowner $2,500, plus $50 per acre. But even then, landowners aren't home free. Other items on the agenda include a $200 annual water-use fee, plus a $2,000 storm-water calculation fee and a $4,000 stream-encroachment permit fee. However, if a landowner miscalculates, and the DEP has to make another site visit to re-inspect the land, the landowner may be fined as much as $1,000. In general, the regulations will apply to almost anyone who wants to build anything on his or her land. There are, however, waiver provisions that allow specific kinds of minimal building to avoid "the taking of property without just compensation." In future articles, we'll be examining specific aspects of the Highlands Act and discussing how they apply to Sussex County municipalities.