What’s good for the urban areas in New Jersey should also be good for the state’s rural areas.


That’s the concept behind the proposed creation of a Highlands Enterprise Zone, which would result in a reduced sales tax for all of Sussex County as well as northern Warren County.


The sales tax in the state’s already existing urban enterprise zones is 3.3125%, half of the rate elsewhere. Under the proposed expansion of that program, a rural enterprise zone would see a similar reduction plus another 1% of the revenue collected would be dedicated to reducing property taxes in the zone’s respective counties.


Participating in Lafayette last week in the announcement of the proposed legislation, Senate President Steven Sweeney said, “We have all supported efforts to grow the economies in our urban areas, but we need to grow the economies in all areas of the state and expand local economic opportunities for all New Jerseyans. The rural areas deserve economic opportunities just like the urban areas.”


This support of “economic opportunities” comes more than 15 years after the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act was signed into law, severely curtailing potential development in a big swath of the state in order to protect water resources that supply drinking water to more than half of New Jersey's families, and in the process devaluing private property that fell within the designated preservation zone.


Efforts since then to somehow compensate property owners for that lost value have not come to fruition.


Time will tell if this effort will be successful. But it shows promise and has bipartisan support. Joining Democrat Sweeney at the news conference held outside in the Shoppes at Lafayette were Republicans Senator Steve Oroho and Assemblyman Hal Wirths, along with U.S. Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat. Wirths, along with Republican Assemblyman Parker Space introduced the proposal to the state House last year.


Gottheimer, who represents much of the Highlands region, took to the podium, and after pointing out that Sussex and Warren counties are losing population and are experiencing high foreclosure rates, turned upbeat promoting the area’s attractions including hiking the Appalachian Trail, downhill skiing, shopping, Crystal Springs Resort, Mountain Creek, Skylands Stadium, Space Farms, “and so much more,” even encompassing the Poconos to the west and the soon-to-open Legoland to the north.


Tasking regional officials to determine how to expand economic development and promote ecotourism and agritourism in the rural zones is a component of the plan which also calls for the state to invest more to support local businesses.


The Highlands Act of 2004 included the need to compensate property owners who were negatively impacted by limiting development.This plan does not directly provide payment to those owners, but it could go a long way to boosting the area’s economic viability, and would also take a shot at attacking our highest-in-the-nation property taxes.


Both Oroho and Sweeney acknowledged that the state has failed to live up to its promise to couple the development limits imposed by the Highlands Act with other programs to maintain the region's economic viability.


After 15 years, it’s about time the state fulfilled its promise. This wouldn’t achieve that, but it would be a start.