Organizing Against the New Jersey Highlands Preservation
Devlen Mackey, Mackey Orchards, Belvidere, New Jersey
Good morning. I had been instrumental in trying to get some people together and fight this New Jersey Highlands thing as it has gone through. I was involved at the early stages when they had what they called a task force, and they used U.S. Forest Service studies to try to give this some credence. They came up with boundary lines in 1992 and then again in the 2002 Forest Service studies.
This Act encompasses 800,000 acres and is divided into two regions400,000 acres is preservation, 400,000 is planning. There is some difference of opinion, but my estimate and that of several people is somewhere around $8 billion worth of our assets and equity is gone with no form of compensation for us within the legislation. They railroaded the thing through when they got it to the legislative stage. Their intent was to run it through in less than a week. If it weren't for Senator Sweeney of South Jersey, who held the thing up for an additional five weeks, only to gain several million dollars per year for a town in South Jersey, the thing would have been passed in one week. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he held it up five more weeks. In six weeks we had legislation.
During this process the Senate Environment Committee, which was the lead on it, had several hearings. They had thousands of people in Trenton with a room that would hold approximately fifty people. Thus most people never got the opportunity to speak. They went out to Voorhees High School to do a presentation there and were supposedly giving the people a chance to speak. Voorhees High School, at best, held maybe a thousand people. There were several thousand people turned away.
We tried our best to get television, radio, and newspaper reports on our behalf. It seemed overwhelmingly that the media was stacked against us and, because they are directly controlled by the dictators in the State, they just wouldn't print our side of the story until the thing was legislated. Now we are starting to get a little bit of press. There are approximately 1.2 million people affected that are either in the planning or the preservation area.
As this thing went forward, there was massive corruption. The quarry association, for one, put up $80,000, and, as legislative things go, they contributedmy version of it is they paid offbut they contributed $80,000 and got what they asked for, a 100 percent exemption if you were in the quarry business. As it went forward, the Star Ledger, which is a major paper in our area, actually did do an article, but it was too little too late. It showed a map of where multiple developers had for a fee purchased their line that was drawn to go around them. Therefore, the corruption continued.
Unfortunately, as we sat in our State Senator's office, Senator Lance told us, well, your lobbying organization is the Farm Bureau, and if you don't like what is going on, I don't care how many of you there are or what your opinion is. You will go to Farm Bureau and relay it through them.
Unfortunately, Farm Bureau's opinion is that we must sit back and get along with everybody. We dare not stir anything up and we dare not make a fight. Otherwise we may not be able to get something when we want it from the legislators.
My opinion on that was, as I said to the President of Farm Bureau, I'm sorry, Rich, I thought you were supposed to be our organization that lobbied for us and helped us, and overwhelmingly the residents of the Highlands Area don't want this. He said, when we fought the plans a few years ago, the state legislators didn't listen to us quite so well for a couple of years or so, so now we're just going to go along with it and ask for a couple of minor revisions. And in fact that is what happened.
Our group had been meeting for several months. There are probably twenty-five or thirty people in the group. We meet every couple of weeks. We are trying to formulate a way to deal with this on the PR front, through the court system, and legislatively. If any of you know of any direction or how to organize so that it is effective, if you have had any dealings with a similar situation or know somebody that has, please have them contact me or someone in my group and help us fight this thing. As we didn't know what, where, or how to turn through the whole thing, we kind of got dealt what they wanted to give us. We had virtually no input into the thing at all.
There are seven counties and 88 municipalities affected by this. The elected freeholders of two counties, Hunterdon and my county of Warren, have embarked on a course of action that hopefully will make some changes. They are concerned about the tax consequences. They are concerned about the home rule issue. As this thing was legislated, we have now, instead of the 88 municipalities that were governing us with our elected members, fifteen members in what's called the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council. They are solely appointed by the Governor. We vote for none of them in any way, shape or form at all. Those fifteen members will tell us what we can build, when we can build, how we can build, or most importantly to those in the preservation area, that we shall not build.
We went from, in most cases, one acre or two acres zoning for a minimum lot to 88 acres in that preservation area, and that is assuming that you have met the other criteria that are so onerous and burdensome that you will never meet them. So essentially they have declared 400,000 acres unbuildable. There have been next to no sales. There have been no large lot sales of land since the Highlands Act passed. There have been very, very few home sales. People who own a home in this area are being told by the realtors that they don't know if they even want to list it. Those who do list it get as far as attorney review. The attorney says to the potential purchaser, are you stupid? Don't buy that. Go across the street. That thing is worthless and it always will be.
The other problem that the Act is going to bring on us is this fifteen-member Council has now gone to forced building in certain towns. They are going to create a transfer of development rights based program. They are going to transfer those rights into the municipalities who do not want the growth. That Council is going to force the growth upon them. It is going to just change the rural character of many of those communities and destroy it.