How do Highlands development restrictions affect agricultural development? Considerable farmland falls within the Highlands Region. Primarily intended to protect drinking water, over 800,000 acres of New Jersey, known as the “Highlands Region,” have been designated either Highlands Preservation Area or Highlands Planning Area. This overlay of regulations allows the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council to create enhanced standards for environmental protection. The Preservation Area is most protected with restricted development and additional application requirements involving the Department of Environmental Protection. The Highlands regulations includes significantly more detail and program options than described here. However, pursuant to NJAC 7:38-2.2, agricultural or horticultural development in the Preservation Area is not regulated as a major Highlands development.
The Three Percent, Nine Percent Rule
Pursuant to NJAC 2:92-31, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture oversees agricultural development in the Highlands pursuant to the “3% / 9% rule,” and pursuant to practice standards and quality criteria. To determine which rule applies to a proposed agricultural development, the total disturbance of impervious coverage must be calculated. If agricultural development results in the cumulative increase in impervious coverage by at least three percent (3%) of the total land area, but not more than nine percent (9%) relative to the total land area, agricultural Highlands development requires the development of a Farm Conservation Plan. If new agricultural impervious cover increases by nine percent (9%) or more relative to the total land area, agricultural Highlands development requires the development of a Resource Management System Plan. These are in addition to the other approvals that are required for the agricultural development, were it not in the Highlands Preservation Area.
Farm Conservation and Resource Management Plans
Both Farm Conservation Plans and Resource Management System Plans are developed with the assistance of the Natural Resource Conservation System local field office. These plans must conform with the NRCS New Jersey Field Office Technical Guide (NJ-FOTG), which contains many sections, and may be found at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/efotg/. The primary difference between the Farm Conservation Plan and the Resource Management System Plan is that the Farm Conservation Plan need only conform to Section III and IV of the NJFOTG, while the Resource Management System Plan must conform to all sections I through V of the NJFOTG.
Plans are approved by the local Soil Conservation District and the NRCS. Preserved Farms may also require approval by the State Agricultural Development Committee (SADC). The decision to approve or not approve the plan is appealable. Additionally, an applicant may consult with other entities to develop the plan, which then requires approval by the NRCS before transmittal to the Soil Conservation District for approval.
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