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Jeff Tittel: Christmas comes early for N.J. developers

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BY JEFF TITTEL
COMMENTARY

While most people are preparing for the holiday season, the builders in New Jersey are busy trying to undermine the protection of our water supplies.

Two bills that will be up for a vote early in the New Year have been on the developer's wish list for the last couple of years. They were introduced to take care of special interests at the expense of public interest, especially our drinking water.

Sen. Paul Sarlo is the sponsor of these bills and has become builder's Santa Claus. Both have been voted out of committee and are on a fast track to be made into law during the lame duck session early next year.

One would delay and weaken protections of New Jersey's critical waterways by gutting the state's Water Quality Management Planning rules. The other would extend the infamous Permit Extension Act.

These bills are part of the ongoing assault on environmental protection that has been happening in the New Jersey Legislature. Of the 14 so-called builder's bills, eight have become law. Some of those already passed include privatizing toxic site cleanups so that consultants working for polluters certify sites are clean instead of the DEP, $1.5 billion of tax subsidies to developers, and the original Permit Extension Act.

If these bills pass, developers will have received two of the biggest Christmas gifts ever at the expense of clean water, good planning, and protecting our drinking water.

S2985/A4345 extends for two years the DEP implementation of the Water Quality Management Planning Rules that are more than 13 years in the making. The bill hands authority of water quality planning over to the State Planning Commission, which will ultimately result in a weakening or pull back of the current rules.

The Water Quality Management Planning Rules would require that proper environmental analysis and planning be done prior to granting a sewer extension are considered a major step forward in the protection of the state's supply.

These rules would also keep sewers out of environmentally sensitive areas and make sure there is enough water for developments to go forward. The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee held hearings on these rules and unveiled no findings that they violated any state laws or were considered intrusive in their implementation.

Under the Water Quality Planning Rules, up to 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land were removed from sewer service areas, which are locations that can be sewered and developed in high densities.

These lands were removed because they consisted of high-value environmental resources, such as habitats for threatened and endangered species, Category One streams, contiguous forests, steep slope, aquifer recharge and many drained into drinking water supply intakes or reservoirs.

When many of these sites were originally put into sewer service areas back in the 1960s, there was no environmental analysis done and often there wasn't even enough water in the area for the projects. In many areas that were originally slated for sewers, the sewers were never created because they either ran out money or feared the pollution and overdevelopment that they would bring.

The goal of the Water Quality Management Planning Rules was to not only protect environmentally sensitive areas, but to also focus appropriate growth back into urban areas. This would revitalize urban areas and save taxpayer dollars by avoiding wasteful spending on expensive infrastructure in environmentally sensitive areas.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Sarlo would prevent implementation of these rules until April 7, 2012 – creating more sprawl and water pollution and presenting a threat to the state's drinking water supply. The bill would allow for the State Planning Commission to oversee water quality management, resulting in a weakening or pull back of the current rules.

The State Planning Commission is controlled by developers and has no expertise in the protection of water supplies. We believe giving the State Planning Commission the ability to change the rules is a violation of the Federal Clean Water Act, the New Jersey Clean Water Act, the Water Quality Planning Act, and the Pollution Control Act.

The other dangerous bill, S3137/A4347, would extend the infamous Permit Extension Act by another two and a half years, pushing the deadline back from July 1, 2010 to Dec. 31 2012. This bill automatically extends all permit approvals at the state or county level across the board for two and a half years without regard to environmental impacts or changes in rules or zoning.

This bill will also undermine New Jersey's attempt to deal with greenhouse gasses by blocking the implementation of the state's climate bill and green building bill.

The Permit Extension Act violates the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws. It would also violate the memorandums of agreement between the EPA and the state of New Jersey.

In its original form, the Permit Extension Act was so bad that even the Bush Administration opposed it because it violated federal law and would undermine the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws. By extending permits even further, the new bill removes some of the safeguards from the first version.

Under current law, permit approvals at the state level are good for 12 years and at the local level 10 years, so they already have plenty of time and don't need this law. The bill has a "Dracula" clause, which allows expired permits to come back to live, even if they negatively impact public health and safety.

Continuation of the Permit Extension Act will grandfather many bad plans in urban areas, undermining the revitalization of our urban areas. For example, Newark changed its zoning to become more transit friendly. But while the city intends to build more transit-friendly development, the Permit Extension Act would grandfather the bad developments of past administrations, undermining this initiative.

In recent years, we have seen sprawl and overdevelopment threaten our waterways. In fact, more than 65 percent of New Jersey's rivers and streams are considered polluted, the highest percentage of any state in the nation. If these two bills go forward, it will only get worse in New Jersey - we'll see sprawl and overdevelopment push further into environmentally sensitive areas, threatening our water supplies.

If the legislature passes these bills this Christmas, a few Christmases from now we'll only be able to drink bottled water.

Jeff Tittel is the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

 

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