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CHESTER, NJ-The Highlands Council, a state-appointed body, has released its final draft of a regional master plan for the nearly 860,000-acre Highlands Region of northwestern New Jersey. The region provides much of the state’s drinking water, and the plan emphasizes water conservation while classifying almost three-quarters of the land as “environmentally sensitive.”

“The people of the Highlands Region have spoken, and we have listened,” says John Weingart, chairman of the Highlands Council, who notes that the plan includes everything from regional plan programs, to a series of technical reports on water availability, clustering, transportation and more. “We used input from our constituents to make a more comprehensive plan that responds on the regional and local levels.”

The plan was mandated by the state’s earlier Highlands Act aimed at protecting environmentally sensitive areas of the region while determining areas suitable for development or redevelopment. A draft plan was issued a year ago, and in an ensuing 160-day comment period, the Highlands Council received more than 3,600 comments from about 1,000 commentators, according to Weingart.

The final draft maps out preservation and planning areas, and of 88 municipalities in the region, five are entirely in the so-called preservation area. Another 47 have land in both the preservation and planning areas, which allow restricted development. And another 36 have land only in the planning area. The draft also includes a Land Use Capability Map series, which includes information on zoning, water availability, public community water systems, sewage and septic systems.

The draft’s determination that nearly 75%–643,037 acres–of the Highlands Region is environmentally constrained is an increase from the 2006 draft, when that number came in at just less than 65% or 557,507 acres. “Our new Land Use Capability Map series allowed us to capture more accurately what really exists on the ground in order to protect the natural resources of the region,” says council executive director Eileen Swan.

“It also gave us the ability to examine the issues of water availability, sewerage facilities and septic systems to see how much capacity is available in the Highlands,” she says. “This is a very complete plan, and it compiles the highest-level data available about this region in one place.” The release of the final draft will be followed by a 90-day public comment period, with three public hearings currently scheduled.

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