The Mahwah last Thursday night voted to opt into the Planning portion of the state’s Highlands Act, which sets certain guidelines for areas of the township deemed developable. Mahwah is already a part of the Preservation Area of the act, which outlines guidelines for plots of land that the Highlands Council says should be preserved.
According to the Highlands Council, its Master Plan for the so-called Highlands region of Northern New Jersey is aimed at protecting and preserving the water and other natural resources of the area.
The Highlands region is a 1300 sq. mile area encompassing 88 municipalities between the Delaware River and the New York Border. The region provides drinking water to about 64 percent of the state's population, about 5.4 million people.
The Highlands Regional Master Plan, drafted in 2008, divides the land in this region into sections that the Council feels should be preserved as much as possible, and those that should be developed in the best interests of the people living and working in the Highlands district.
For Mahwah, being part of the preservation portion was mandatory, but the planning section was optional.
“For the most part, the goals of the township’s Master Plan are consistent with the Highlands,” township planner Joseph Leighton said at the meeting. “There may be a few parcels of land that are adversely affected, but I’d say those would be few and far between."
For those plots, Highlands representatives Eileen Swan and Tom Bordon said the Highlands Council will work with the town council to reconcile any inconsistencies between Mahwah’s land use laws, and the Highlands rules.
Existing and future single family homes will be exempt from Highlands regulations, Bordon said. “Large scale developments are really what’s at the heart of this.”
According to Swan, “the state is going to mind it’s own business, and let Mahwah take care of its residents.” She said the town council’s decision to opt into the Planning Area is the first step in a long process of adapting the Highlands Act to Mahwah’s existing laws.
The town council’s major concern about opting into the full Highlands Act was how it would reconcile itself with COAH and other affordable housing requirements the state has yet to implement on the township.
“We are still waiting to see what happens [with affordable housing requirements], but I think [Mahwah] is in a good position,” Swan said. “You have a lot of affordable housing units here.” She also said the work the township professionals have done with the Highlands so far to "accurately" analyze the township’s vacant land will be beneficial once an affordable housing determination is made by the state.
The town council was also assured that it would be able to opt out of the planning area in the future. Swan gave several examples of appropriate times to opt out, which include a or the addition of ordinances that would make Mahwah no longer in compliance with the Highlands Act. She also said Mahwah could opt out when the Highlands Master Plan is revised, which is set to happen next in 2014.