Mayor and council letter charges Highlands Act as unfunded state mandate

Source: State of New Jersey

By Charles Kim
WEST MILFORD – The mayor and Township Council want a to have a dialogue with Gov. Phil Murphy, its state legislators, and the Highlands Council, to address what it sees as an unfunded mandate by the state for monies lost by the Highlands Act.
In a Sept. 19 letter to the council, Acting Mayor Tim Wagner and the other council members, said that the Highlands Act, which protects the drinking water of an estimated 5.4 million people, has cost the municipality “millions of dollars” during the last 15 years by heavily regulating what businesses can come into the township.
This, the members argue in the letter, amounts to an “unfunded state mandate” that places an undue burden on the community because its entire 80-square miles are covered under the act.
“The impact of the Highlands Act to the Township of West Milford, has cost the township millions and millions of dollars in lost ratables and infrastructure during the last 15 years,” the letter said.
According to the letter, the strict regulations imposed by the act, and a 2009 Municipal Buildout Report produced by the Highlands Council, show that there is zero space available to build either residential or non-residential units in the geographically large township, therefore restricting economic growth in the municipality.
The 2004 act imposes rules and land use standards in a large swath of northern New Jersey, known as the “Highlands Preservation Area.”
According to the state, the act was adopted to protect the drinking water for almost half the state’s population, as well as preserving open space in its most pristine, forested area.
The state estimates that the area provides some 379 million gallons of drinking water daily and accounts for more than 110,000 acres of agricultural land as well as providing the natural habitat for a number of plants and wildlife.
The township also estimates the losses to be around $1 million annually, not including compounding interest, going forward in lost opportunities for ratables, the letter said.
“While the Township of West Milford certainly recognizes and appreciates the goals of the Highlands Act, it has not been fairly compensated for its efforts and obligations,” the letter said. “Moreover, the financial burden that the Highlands Act has placed on the Township of West Milford and its taxpayers, is one which requires by our Constitution, financial resources for this unfunded mandate.”
The letter goes on to request a meeting with Highlands Council officials as well as state legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy.
“We would very much like to have this dialogue prior to the township weighing its legal alternatives, including an Unfunded Mandate Complaint, which the township would consider filing as a last resort,” the letter said.
While members of the Highlands Council are scheduled to meet with the West Milford Lakes Committee on Monday about how the committee could get grant money to help with environmental issues, there is no plan to meet with the governing body.
As far as the state goes, a spokesman for Gov. Murphy’s office did not respond by press time on Thursday to questions about whether the governor saw the letter or if he planned to respond to the township.
The letter asks the Highlands Council to respond in 30 days.