Lisa Plevin called her agency one of the best kept secrets in state government.
The New Jersey Highlands Council offers non-competitive grants to the 88 municipalities and seven counties that make up the Highlands region for “soft costs,” like planning, design, and engineering, which are usually the first steps in getting an improvement project off the ground.
A long list of grants are available, including for trails and recreation, historic preservation, scenic resource management, redevelopment, and lake management.
Plevin, the council’s executive director, gave a presentation before the Ogdensburg Council and Land Use Committee on March 22 to the highlight ways the borough can get these grants.
She said there was no grant matching involved. The grants require a pre-approved scope of work, with actual construction costs to be funded by the borough.
She said the council has tremendous flexibility in the grants they award to municipalities.
The next step for Ogdensburg would be to sit down with the Highlands staff, said Plevin. If the borough’s goals further the goals in the Highlands Act outlined in the Regional Master Plan, chances are very high the grant can be funded, she said.
The Highlands Act designated two areas: the preservation zone – where conformance with the Regional Master Plan and Highlands Act are required; and the planning area – where conformance with the Regional Master Plan and the Highlands Act is voluntary.
In 2012, Plevin said, the Ogdensburg Council submitted a preservation area petition that the Highlands Council approved. In that year, the council identified its municipal goals:
● Revitalizing the downtown area
● Retaining the small town character with existing historic properties
● Establishing a plan for sustainable economic growth
● Energizing the community
Plevin said the borough is already conforming with preservation goals. Some grants would involve more conformance in planning.
Ogdensburg contains 14 percent in the preservation area, which requires conformance, and 86 percent in the planning area, in which conformance is voluntary.
Maryjude Haddock-Weiler, planning manager for the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council, said revitalizing the business district could create a “center designation,” where development and redevelopment are encouraged, based on what the borough wants to achieve and on available or potential infrastructure.
She said the Highlands Council could provide funding up front for a feasibility study. Next, she said, staff would help the borough put together a petition for planning conformance, a municipal resolution, a 30-day public comment period, a hearing in front of the Highlands Council, approval, and allocation of funds.
Mayor George Hutnick asked board planner Angela Knowles how the Highlands program affected her current work on the Ogdensburg Economic Development Plan. Knowles said the program would provide funding for the work to continue and to move Ogdensburg forward.
The chair of the Land Use Board, Elliott Honig, asked about the downside for a small municipality like Ogdensburg.
Haddock-Weiler said the borough has some environmentally sensitive areas, like steep slopes and forests, that warrant protection. However, she said, more detailed information is needed and would lead to more discussion.
Plevin said if Ogdensburg can withdraw from planning conformance if it decides it’s not in the borough’s best interest. She said the council provides an initial assessment grant to help Ogdensburg determine how conformance with the Highlands Act and the Regional Master Plan would affect the borough.
Haddock-Weiler said the assessment grant and feasibility study are two different things but can be done at the same time.
Honig said if the town decided to move forward, he would be on board with finding out more information for free. He said he was concerned about more regulations imposed on the borough.
Herbert August, manager of grants for the Highlands Council, said council can also investigate funding sources and help the borough with next steps.
Haddock-Weiler said because the Highlands Regional Master Plan has been endorsed by the state planning commission, municipal funding applications with the Highlands Council tend to go to the top of the list.
In addition, she said, the Highlands Council has a good working relationship with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for other kinds of funding to protect streams.
Honig said the borough’s biggest goal is to increase traffic coming into Ogdensburg and to have visitors stay in town for activities and attractions.