While agriculture is still a significant part of Independence’s economy, retail, food, and other services have moved in as the neighboring Hackettstown has grown. The majority of these businesses are located on Route 517 in Independence, a short segment of the township that helps connect Hackettstown to the major Route 80, which connects the area to the New York City metropolitan area. Independence township zoned this stretch of pavement for commercial use mainly because it is a well-trafficked road connecting the busy Hackettstown to the major highway and because all of the utilities are already there. There is access to electricity, sewage, city water, and natural gas making it easy and cheap for a business to move in. Because of DEP regulations, you need many acres of land to put in a septic tank so having access to municipal water is the only efficient and economical way for a business to build. That is why Independence zoned this stretch of land for commercial use.
In 2004, a local business man wanted to build a store on a forested plot of land on Route 517. He got all of his permits approved by the town, including an environmental easement. As required by the town, he also agreed to realign a wacky intersection there. With all of his permits ready he began construction on the property by clearing the land of trees and shrubs, connecting the utilities, building large retaining walls, and levelling and compacting the earth. He was preparing for the next step of construction, when the DEP suddenly came onto the property and shut him down. There were no problems with his paperwork and he had not violated any regulations. But while he was working on getting the land prepped for construction, a new land use law was ratified by New Jersey which placed his property in a protected area. It was now illegal for him to build his store.
Protecting the Highlands
On August 10, 2004 New Jersey signed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act into law. The act was a land preservation act, creating the New Jersey Highlands region consisting of 88 municipalities in Bergen, Hunterdon, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex, and Warren counties. The Highlands Act had two main goals; to preserve open spaces and natural resources that lay within the state including much of the forests and farmlands within Independence township, and to preserve the drinking water supply for more than half of New Jersey’s residents, most who live near New York City. To do this, development is restricted in the areas designated within the Highlands region. From a land ethic perspective, this seems like a good idea. By restricting development, New Jersey could preserve the natural beauty found within its state, protect local wildlife, and ensure the water needs of their citizens could be met. However, in practice there are many issues with this act and what happened in Independence is a good example of what could go wrong.
For example, the businessman who wanted to develop a retail center on Route 517--when the lot was deemed to be in the Highlands area all development was halted. This meant a loss of income for the businessman and taxes for the township. Further, if this land cannot be developed it loses property value. Across the state previously developable lands are now untouchable and vacant. With this comes the loss of property value, the loss of wealth for the landowner and a loss of tax income for the local towns. If this was not already hard enough for the landowners, the Highlands Act has not, and does not have plans to send reparations to any of the landowners affected by this economic loss, even 16 years after the law was signed.
Another issue with the act is how seemingly arbitrary the boundaries are. When driving north on Route 517 in Independence, the site of the attempted shopping center lies on your left. There are forests and mountains, with the occasional building from before the enactment of the Highlands Act on this side. However, on the right side of this street, almost directly across the road from the vacant shopping center lot, the Highlands Act no longer applies and you’ll see a QuickCheck that was built a few years after the Highlands Act. There are also plans to clearcut the forest on this side of the street and put in the Woodmont housing complex. The QuickCheck and the housing complex site both lie just a street width across from the Highlands protected area, and are actually at a lower elevation, meaning the water will run to these developed areas. If you travel a couple miles north along Route 517 and into Allamuchy, the Highland protected area actually switches sides. So, in Allamuchy the left side of the road is developable land, where the right side is Highland protected land, the complete opposite of the same area just a mile down the road.
But the reason why the construction on Route 517 was shut down in 2004 is a bit more subversive. The Highlands Act was signed into law on August 10, 2004 and the construction was already well underway at this point. However, this site was not grandfathered in. Instead, the Highlands Act was actually retroactive allowing the law to take effect five months before the act was even signed. Any construction that had begun after March 29 was subject to the Highlands Act, and could therefore be shut down. Since the construction on Route 517 began after March 29, even though he was following the current codes, had all of his paperwork in, had already clearcut the land, brought the utilities onto the property, and began construction, he was still shut down because of a new, retroactive law.
Who is protected?
So while the township of Independence prepares for the bulldozers to tear down the forest on route 517 to make way for the new Woodmont housing complex, the cleared lot across the street sits perpetually empty. The Highlands Act was written to protect these forests, as well as the drinking water supply. Yet, forests on both sides of the roads are destroyed, and the water in Independence flows into the Atlantic Ocean and not into the spickets of New Jersey residents. The Highlands Act was signed into law to ensure the safety and beauty of New Jersey, and yet it continues to strangle small towns across the state that have lost ratables, undisturbed land, property value, and taxes to ensure the well being of these towns. Independence township and its residents have been battered by this law for 16 years, and there is not an end in sight.
Jeffrey Pennington is a student at Muhlenberg College who is double-majoring in Sustainability Studies and Mathematics. Growing up in rural New Jersey, he spent much of his time outdoors, playing in the woods and learning about local wildlife. This helped to create a lifelong passion for the environment and sustainability, particularly concerning land use. He enjoys fishing, camping, hiking, kayaking, and snowmobiling, and he can often be found watching his favorite teams, the New Jersey Devils and New York Jets, lose.