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TRENTON, NJ-Environmentalists were downright giddy last week when the state senate and assembly simultaneously passed legislation that will effectively stop development in about half of northwestern New Jersey’s 800,000-acre Highlands region. Most of the protected land lies along the region’s lakes, streams and reservoirs. The legislation was also considered a major victory for the anti-sprawl campaign of the administration of Gov. James McGreevey.

Now, environmentalists are crying “foul” in the wake of a bill passed yesterday by both houses of the legislature that will fast-track the permitting process in those parts of the state, estimated to be about 30% of its total land area, targeted for development by the state’s land-use management plan. McGreevey has actively supported the latest legislation as a way to make it easier for developers to get what he terms “good projects” done.

Sources say the two separate bills are actually linked, at least politically. Observers say that the fast-track bill was used to mollify developers’ concerns about the impact of the Highlands protection bill and to get the latter legislation over the hump in the legislature. That, plus what critics say is the potential for abuse of the fast-tracked permitting process, is what has opponents most unhappy.

“If this whole thing was a deal to save the Highlands watershed, it was the worst trade since the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, told reporters after the vote.

In any event, the legislation that supporters are calling regulatory reform will combine and compress the permitting processes of three state agencies, the Departments of Community Affairs, Environmental Protection and Transportation, into as little as 45 days, even for major projects. The process now takes many months, even years.

The bill, which McGreevey has clearly indicated he will sign, will also set up an ombudsman to oversee the process. The office of the ombudsman will be situated within the Department of Community Affairs.

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