NEW JERSEY HAS PASSED A LAND-USE bill for the northern part of the state that seeks to protect the drinking water for more than half the state's 8 million residents and roughly half the state's 566 municipalities.

The Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act passed in the Assembly by a vote of 69-10 and in the state Senate by a 34-2 vote. The vote is viewed as a victory for Gov. James McGreevey, who was expected to sign the bill in short order.

“New Jersey residents can be proud knowing they live in a state where their elected leaders recognize the importance of preserving open space and ensuring access to clean drinking water now and in the future,” McGreevey said in a prepared statement.

The bill restricts growth on 800,000 acres over seven counties in North Jersey. It prevents growth in a 395,000-acre “preservation area” and designates a regional planning council to manage voluntary growth on the rest of the land, called the “planning area.”

The state's builders fought to get a growth area designated in the planning area but were unsuccessful. The New Jersey Builders Association (NJBA) says the bill does nothing to address the state's worsening housing crisis.

A short statement on the NJBA Web site in early June encapsulated the builders' view:

“Legislation to protect the Highlands presented an opportunity to preserve the region's natural resources and provide for its human resources. Instead, the bill that emerged lacks balance and fails to provide for the economic and housing needs of New Jersey's workers and their families. As yet, another 16 percent of New Jersey is declared off-limits to middle-income households. We are left to ask: Where will the people live?”