NJ makes it easier to build in sensitive areas

January 10, 2012 9:21 AM ET

By WAYNE PARRY

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey on Monday passed legislation that could make it easier for developers to build in environmentally sensitive areas.

Environmentalists had mounted a strong effort against the measure, saying it would drastically increase water pollution in spots such as the fragile Barnegat Bay and other waterways.

"This dirty deal at the State House will directly result in dirty water for New Jersey residents," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club environmental organization. "This bill takes the side of the builders and polluters over the people of New Jersey."

The bill puts home builders above the environment, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal advocacy group.

"Once again, special interests won out in Trenton," he said. "This bill is going to place hundreds of thousands of acres at risk of development in environmentally critical areas. It will increase the pollution of New Jersey's drinking water, its bays and rivers."

The bill still has to be signed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie before it takes effect. He has not publicly indicated whether he supports it.

At issue are sewer service designations, or areas of the state that are approved to someday have sewer service. Under current rules, county governments can protect land from most large-scale development by removing it from approved sewer service areas. Development of homes, stores and parking lots causes more dirty storm water and sewage overflows to run into waterways.

The bill keeps sewer service approvals in place for the next two years; sponsors of the bill had originally wanted them extended for three years. It also prohibits governments from protecting land already eligible for development by removing it from the areas approved for sewer service.

The sewer boundaries are important because they determine where large-scale development, such as for residential or commercial complexes, can take place.

Proponents wanted the bill to extend the time existing sewer boundaries can stay in effect to help the state come out of a sluggish economy by creating construction jobs.

The New Jersey Builders Association welcomed the bill, saying it provides certainty to builders that their plans can move forward in a difficult economy. Sen. Steven Oroho, a Sussex County Republican, said last month the bill is needed to help put skilled tradesmen back to work.

But environmentalists said it would undo decades of progress in improving water quality. Several mentioned the struggling Barnegat Bay as a particularly vulnerable waterway, but the bill applies to environmentally sensitive areas statewide.

The bill also allows builders to apply to the state Department of Environmental Protection for exemptions for their particular projects. An exemption doesn't have to be consistent with the environmental rules if it provides a net environmental benefit, meaning developers could do mitigation projects on other sites to receive approvals to develop in sensitive areas.

Developments also could be added to sewer service areas even if there isn't treatment capacity there.

A coalition of 13 state environmental groups released a report last week showing how water pollution could significantly increase under the bill. The report, prepared by a hydrogeology firm that specializes in ground water resource engineering, claimed the bill would burden the state's water customers with between $217 million and $435 million in additional water treatment costs a year. In addition, it said, by allowing development in lands that are ecologically critical to maintaining the water supply, up to $17 million of water resources would be lost each year.

Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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