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Highlands law can be a model for Northeastern Pennsylvania

Scranton Sunday Times
Sunday, October 30, 2005

By Thomas Hylton

Last spring, Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly authorized $625 million in bonds to preserve open space and fund environmental initiatives such as water quality and mine reclamation projects. This followed a similar 5-year, $645 million effort signed into law by Gov. Ridge in 1999.

Several counties have created their own programs, such as Monroe County’s 10-year, $25 million plan approved by voters in 1998. On Nov. 8, Pike County voters will be asked to approve up to $10 million in county bonds to protect open space.

These initiatives are vital to preserve Pennsylvania’s environmental quality. But there will never be enough money to buy all the farms and forests that need to be saved. Pennsylvania has already allocated more than any other state to buy development rights on farms, for example, but after 15 years and $680 million spent, the program has preserved just 4 percent of the state’s farmland.

To protect its future, Northeastern Pennsylvania might seek its own version of New Jersey’s Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, passed in 2004. The law manages growth in an 800,000-acre area (larger than Pike and Monroe counties combined) that stretches across parts of seven counties in northwestern New Jersey.

In one bold stroke, the state permanently protected 400,000 acres of forests and reservoirs called the Highlands Preservation Area. Moreover, growth will be managed regionally in a 400,000-acre area surrounding the preserved core, called the Highlands Planning Area. A Highlands Council has been established to develop and oversee a regional plan, to be created by June 2006, that will guide development to designated areas.

Although the law does not take away the power of the 88 individual municipalities in the Highlands region to regulate growth, it does provide significant incentives for them to conform with the regional plan. The incentives include planning grants, technical aid, legal protection for any municipal action taken in conformance with the plan, and state compensation for tax revenues lost because of any decline in the development value of vacant land.

The Highlands Council will also establish a transfer of development rights program, allowing property owners whose land cannot be developed to sell “development rights” to builders who can use them to build at higher densities in areas targeted for growth. At the same time, the targeted growth areas will be given financial incentives to allow more development.

There is ample evidence the Highlands Act can succeed, because it is based on one of the most successful growth management programs in the nation, called the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve.

The Pinelands comprises 1 million acres in southern New Jersey between Philadelphia and Atlantic City - about 22 percent of the state’s total land area - covering portions of seven counties. The land consists of pristine forests, bogs, berry farms, rivers, and a few towns and hamlets sitting on an enormous but shallow aquifer.

To protect the Pinelands from sprawling development, the federal and state governments passed laws in 1978 and 1979 creating the Pinelands National Reserve and establishing a 15-member commission to draw up and implement a master plan to control growth in the region. The master plan, adopted in 1980, earmarks about 8 percent of the Pinelands for development, with another 13 percent of the Pinelands designated to absorb growth when the primary development area fills up.

Where development is restricted, property owners are allocated Pinelands Development Credits they can sell to developers who use them to increase densities in targeted growth areas. Since the program began, credits covering 40,000 acres have been bought and sold through this transfer-of-development-rights process.

The Pinelands has not sacrificed economic growth to preserve its pristine character. A study conducted on the 20th anniversary of the Pinelands Commission found that growth of jobs, businesses, housing values, wages, and other economic indicators closely matched the rest of the state. The cost of local government, however, was considerably lower than the statewide average.

Northeastern Pennsylvania’s forests are not only an enormous environmental asset, they provide the quality of life that will be the region’s biggest draw for generations to come. Current development patterns threaten to fragment these forests and jeopardize the region’s economic and environmental future.

Perhaps it’s time for area legislators and county leaders to create task force to study the Highlands system and consider a similar program in Pennsylvania.

A century ago, Pike County’s Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service, influenced President Theodore Roosevelt to expand America’s protected forests from 20 million acres in 1901 to 193 million acres in 1909. Later, as governor of Pennsylvania, Pinchot reformed forest management in the Commonwealth and helped sponsor the planting of 30 million trees.

And yet, Pinchot said, “the first principle of conservation is development.” As Northeastern Pennsylvania seeks a way to accommodate needed growth while retaining its farms and forests, it may find the answer just 25 miles away, in the Highlands of New Jersey.



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