HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - After several years of worry about potential negative impacts for landowners in western New Jersey, there is a new sense of cooperation pervading the application of regulations for land, water quality and environmental protection measures to conform with the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act of 2004, “the Highlands Act.”

Northern parts of Hunterdon County along the I-78 corridor from Tewksbury Township, Clinton and Lebanon Townships to Milford Borough, Alexandria Township and Holland Township lie within the Highlands.

At the Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting June 2, Hunterdon County Supervising Planner Ken Bogen said there are components being completed this spring by a hired community planning consulting firm, and county planners are offering comments and revisions as necessary with a big picture and goal in mind.

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A public meeting, once COVID-19 protocols and considerations pave the way, will be planned for review of the contents for Hunterdon County’s focused conformance to the Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP) and for review of amendments to the county master plan. The Regional Master Plan guides implementation of the Highlands Act.

Bogen noted that Hunterdon County is the first New Jersey county to be using the new process.
“This will create a Highlands model for other counties to go through with their plan conformance process,” he said.

In December 2018 the Highlands Council approved grant funding for $30,000, and later increased the amount to $42,000 for the development of the county’s petition documents for plan conformance.

In July 2019, Hunterdon County’s freeholder board approved a resolution for a professional services agreement with community planning consulting firm Heyer Gruel & Associates (HGA), based in Red Bank. HGA was charged with developing Hunterdon County’s components for the plan conformance decision process.

A February 4, 2020 morning public information session was held in the freeholder board’s regular meeting room in Flemington. It was led by the consultants, including HGA Senior Planner John Baree, to discuss the goals and objectives of Hunterdon County’s conformance process.

Bogen outlined the three major petition documents Hunterdon County must submit to gain conformance from the Highlands Council, and all three are being prepared by Heyer Gruel & Associates.

“One is a self-assessment report, which summarizes the goals, objectives and other information concerning county planning documents, and how they align with the Highlands Regional Master Plan,” he said. "This report contains a summary of all county planning documents. A second document is the Highlands Plan Element, which will eventually become an amendment to Hunterdon County’s Master Plan (comprehensive plan). The element will recommend changes to our county plans and documents so they’re in compliance with the Highlands Regional Master Plan, and they’ll also go toward defining our set of activities for future implementation.”

The third petition document HGA is working on will be the Hunterdon County Implementation Agenda. This will be based on the first two documents, with recommendations set forth with the county master plan amendment and the county’s self-assessment report.

The agenda will provide a timeline for preparing new plans or updating current plans. Each will need to be conforming with the Highlands Regional Master Plan.
 
Freeholder J. Matthew Holt commented on the process to achieve a path for Highlands Regional Master Plan conformance in the county. He was in his current elected office in December 2009, when the “Draft Highlands Element for Hunterdon County Growth Management Plan” was produced by the Highlands Council, and it was modified by Hunterdon County’s planning board.

“The history of plan conformance goes a long way back,” he said. “It wasn’t a great history over a long time, and over a few years back, we began a dialogue with the Highlands Council. Having been a part of that, I can say the dialogue was good and productive, it was an opportunity for Hunterdon County to discuss how we can move forward with our economic development activities and the reason for them, and what the county saw as economic development. That outline was perhaps different than what many may consider in terms of economic development and our abilities to sustain an economy moving forward. At the same time, the county was reiterating how dedicated Hunterdon County and the freeholder board is to open space, water quality and land preservation. The Highlands Council and advisors and Hunterdon County has really found that our missions are the same.”

HGA has shared information from the Self-Assessment Report with county planners, and the draft has been tweaked with scrutiny and reviews of county documents and data. Also, the county has received a draft of the Highlands Plan Element (Master Plan amendment) from HGA, Bogen said.

“We’re currently reviewing that internally in county planning for potential revisions and comments,” he said. “After the county-level revisions, this will go to the Highlands Council staff for their review and comments.”  

After the public meeting for residents, organizations and businesses to provide their input to HGA, the consulting planning firm will complete the draft Highlands Plan Element and prepare a draft Implementation Agenda, with guidance from the Highlands Council.

“Then all three petition documents will be submitted to the council and they will prepare a report summarizing Hunterdon County’s petition and they will stipulate the conditions for county implementation moving forward,” Bogen said. “Then, after that report, there will be a public hearing on the county’s petition for Highlands Plan conformance agenda at a regular meeting of the Highlands Council, and the petition will be approved at that meeting.”

Holt noted that Hunterdon received a $75,000 grant last year for its three-phase tourism study of the region, including natural attractions, and he said the county’s effort for Highlands Plan conformance now is “really commendable.”

“Hunterdon County can be a leader in demonstrating that the Highlands mission and ours is very similar and we can work hand-in-hand,” he said. “I am excited to see this progress, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren noted that as a Tewksbury Township mayor and committeeman for over 21 years, he had been part of the “contentiousness” over application of the Highlands Act in Hunterdon County a while ago.

“We were battling with the county over having been denied funding for farmland preservation due to the Highlands issue,” he said. “I am pleased that there has been more than a 180-degree turn here between the county and the Highlands Regional Plan. I’m pleased we’re moving forward with this conformance process as the county has embraced it, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also from the standpoints of water quality and environmental measures. I am sorry Hunterdon County did not do this sooner, but I am glad we’re doing this now and thank you Mr. Bogen and our planning department for us moving forward on this.”