28 January 2007

Editorial on the Highlands

As a researcher and scientist who has contributed to the study of the region, I try to keep my opinions on the Highlands fairly muted. And, as I teach a planning class that relies on this as a case study, I see something fairly natural and common about the basic tensions that are being revealed in the Highlands debate pitting community needs (like water) and desires (like quality of life) against personal interests (property rights and money). As a generic issue, these as have a valid place in a debate about policy and planning decisions; that's what makes takings law interesting and makes it hard to sort out the current debate over eminent domain. But sometimes the rhetoric and politics gets out of hand, and that seems to clearly be happening.

Today the Daily Record published an editorial that addressed some of the imbalance in the arguments. In particular, some are arguing that concerns over water supply are inappropriate. Huh? Boonton has a moratorium on new hookups. It seems like nearly every summer there are water restrictions in place. And the Highlands supplies water to about half of New Jersey's population, which just keeps growing.

There's no reason -- other than partisan Republican politics -- for the freeholders to declare war on the Highlands. Instead, let the board zero in on what we see as the key problem in this debate: finding a way to force the state to compensate preservation area landowners. If the freeholders truly are thinking about litigation, this is an area to explore.
There is also an argument advanced that the Act isn't based on science. Legislation is rarely based on science as much as politics, so that isn't anything new or unusual. Although the science that spurred on the Act was mighty sound. The weakest points of the Act might be the ways that it was built on compromise with many of the opponents. Often, the political compromises undermine the consistency and science but are necessities in a pluralistic society.

I especially like the way the editorial says, "if the freeholders truly are thinking about litigation..." as if they think it is just political posturing by a group that is accusing others of being political. The Highlands are complex landscape, both physically and politically, and deserve some serious attention.

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