Property Rights Foundation of America®
from PRFA's Eleventh Annual National Conference on Private Property Rights

Farmers Fight Back in the New Jersey Highlands

Devlen Mackey

How you doing today? I am from northwestern New Jersey. I don't have a formal prepared speech. I am just going to go with a short recap of what our issue is down in New Jersey.

The name of the New Jersey Highlands Regional Planning and Water Protection Act says quite a bit about the topic here. The opposition to us came into the New Jersey Legislature and, within a three month period of time, they created essentially a piece of legislation that took most of our land, which was one acre and a half to three acre zoning. They essentially rezoned 800,000 acres, or one sixth of our state, to 88-acre zoning. If it's open space and meets other criteria, if you can have 25 acres you can put a house. They have given certain exceptions and exemptions to allow people to build things, but essentially it's a no-growth bill.

They sell it to the public under the guise of water protection. There are six million people in the eastern half of the state; they tell these people, "You all aren't going to have any water to drink if we continue on the path we are on."

In a three-month period of time they put this thing through the legislature, and it sat around on our governor's desk for awhile, and he signed it the day before he left office. Now we're faced with trying to come up with what do we do about it.

Several of us have gotten together and formed a group. After much wrangling and debate we came up with Highlands Conservation Association as a name for our group to fight this cause.

The DEP, which is the Department of Environmental Protection, is the implementing authority in the state. They come up with rules and regulations to tell us what we can and cannot do. The legislation was a couple hundred pages long. We have hundreds of more pages of rules and regulations.

Just to illustrate a little bit of what these guys are doing, I spoke earlier to a gentleman here from California in regard to sewers. This is supposed to be allegedly about protecting the water and etc. Under their rules and regulations, what they have done is they said no more sewers, no more sewer lines. If you are not already hooked up, you are not getting hooked up. We have a community on Lake Hopatcong, the largest body of fresh water in the state of New Jersey, which goes into the drinking supply. It is almost exclusively on septic systems. Well, common sense would dictate to you that you would put that on a sewer. That is not where they want to go. They have said, no sewers. So this is the mindset of the guys that we have.

They have come up with things like the ephemeral vernal pool. "Ephemeral" is defined in Webster's dictionary as not lasting more than 24 hours; the pool is essentially a mud puddle. If the DEP would determine that it could support a salamander or something that's on their rare, threatened, or endangered species list—and there are things on there native to Australia and native to Antarctica—if they think that it could be potential habitat for one of these, they'll draw a 1,000-foot circumference around that vernal pool. That's 72 acres and they mean do not touch ever, for any reason.

The county in which we live is Warren County. Together with the county south of us, Hunterdon County, they instituted a suit in state court. It got up to the appellate level with their challenge. They are awaiting their day in court. Since then, the Hunterdon County guys have dropped out because of the political change there. Warren County is continuing with that suit. The effort that they're making is in conjunction with half a dozen other private individuals, mostly developers, who have been thwarted in their development plans.

Steve Shaw is the county counsel and in his economic report that he just released a few days ago he showed a $15 billion, with a B, net loss in property value due to the Highlands Act and over a hundred billion dollar loss in economic activity. We have small, as well as sizable, businesses leaving the state, pretty much in droves. The future of northwestern New Jersey is that they modeled this after the Adirondacks. They're trying to drive the people that live there out and make it a depressed area.

As far as what I've been doing with my group, we have applied for a 501(c)(3) status to become a federally tax exempt organization. That should all be done in the next few weeks. Our group has done many things. We're active with letters to the editors and a lot of the handouts that you have out here. We have been involved with Carol here for a number of years. If some of you are here for the first time, Carol is a good resource to get some pointers on where to go. What we have done is we have hired some attorneys from Washington, D.C. to mount a constitutional challenge. After much time with those folks being around, they deviated from the goal which we originally had agreed to go on and tried to bring it into a more pointed, more civil target, rather than a broad-based constitutional challenge, which is where we originally started. So we are in the process now of looking for another attorney. We have been to many of the nonprofit groups that are around and those folks, we find, are stretched very thin and their resources are somewhat limited. With the time remaining, I'd like to take a couple of questions.

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