Appellate court upholds Highlands Act in separate actions

TRENTON – A state appellate court has upheld the Highlands Act in four appeals.

The court this morning ruled in separate cases originally brought by Toll Brothers, Bocina Homes, Wanaque Realty Corp. and Mountain Lakes Estates, Inc.,  and another case brought by the Fair Share Housing Center.

The court ruled against the builders’ arguments that restrictions on the development rights of parcels were arbitrary, and ruled in the Fair Share case that essentially the Highlands Act trumps the affordable housing arguments.

The Toll case concerns an 84-acre parcel in Pohatcong, and the Bocina appeal concerns a 12.3-acre parcel in Far Hills Borough.

In each case,  the appellate court has ruled that a part of the  appeal concerning opposition to the parcels’ inclusion in a specially constrained zone is premature.

Toll, before the Highlands regional master plan was adopted, had received major subdivision approval for development of its site. Toll had argued that the inclusion of this site in a “Conservation Zone – Environmentally Constrained Sub-Zone,” was arbitrary.

In its own case, Bocina similarly argued that inclusion in an “Existing Community Zone — Environmentally Constrained Sub-Zone,” was arbitrary.

Toll Brothers has since withdrawn from the matter, and property owners Jack Oberly and a representative, Martin Resnick, asked to be substituted as appellants, which the court permitted.

The court in essence ruled in the cases that a more complete record has to be compiled, including how the master plan and zoning ordinances eventually will conform. Once towns are accepted into the regional master plan and zoning laws are changed, further appeals may occur, the court stated.

The 2004 Highlands law covers 1,250 square miles in parts of seven counties: Hunterdon, Somerset, Sussex, Warren, Morris, Passaic, and Bergen, and includes 88 municipalities. Approximately 859,359 acres make up the Preservation and the Planning Area where activities are regulated by the state.

The rulings come at a critical time for the Highlands Act. Environmentalists oppose several of Gov. Christie’s recent appointments to the Council as too pro-development, while some property owners in the Highlands argue they cannot get market value for their property by transferring development rights to the Highlands Council.

 

Appellate court upholds Highlands Act in separate actions