The members of the Smart Growth Economic Development Coalition would like to correct the misconceptions surrounding Assembly bill 4335/Senate bill 3156, the Water Quality Management Plan legislation. Despite what critics contend, this bill is not a threat to the environment.
The bill addresses hyper-detailed administrative requirements that create a cumbersome process for revising all of the adopted wastewater treatment plans, only some of which were outdated.
The state mandate is expensive, labor intensive and has failed to meet its own objectives. More pointedly, the paperwork created by the process does not improve our environment. To the contrary, the current administrative process is an obstacle to allowing sound redevelopment and new development that comply with our more modern environmental protections.
Under the current burdensome administrative process, all 21 counties were to prepare their intensively detailed countywide plans by April 2009. As a starting point, each county was asked to reconcile the draft sewer service area maps provided by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. But the materials and direction provided by the DEP included bad data, factual mistakes and faulty assumptions. Existing and approved projects were slated to be removed from the maps, while landowners were kept in the dark. In order to ensure transparency, and in recognition of the importance of property rights, the counties held meetings where the general public could review and refute, as needed, the draft maps. Since no individualized notice is required under the current rules, many landowners remain unaware that there properties were being removed from the maps.
The ongoing process to develop "ground truth" maps that are accurate has been difficult. It is now nearly three years later and only two counties — Hudson and Monmouth — have submitted plans to the state for approval, and those plans are far from perfect.
Credit must be given to the DEP in recognizing that the program adopted in 2008 is flawed. The DEP has granted short-term extensions to counties on a case-by-case basis. Now, given the economy and the burdensome regulations, a uniform extension is necessary. Such an extension is especially critical given one of the most troublesome aspects of the rules — the authority for the DEP to rescind all sewer service areas without consideration for broader state planning goals. If the DEP were to exercise that power, we can assure you that withdrawal of sewer service areas would be catastrophic for New Jersey's economy.
This reform bill prohibits the DEP from pulling wastewater service area designations for a limited time period as the plans continue to be developed — and as the new Office for Planning Advocacy works with the State Planning Commission to finalize a new state plan for New Jersey's future. Such assurance is necessary for landowners who are concerned about the status of their properties, as well as for those with financial commitments from lenders and investors.
The opposition to the bill is based on misdirection and inaccurate statements. Let us be clear — this bill does not affect the dozens of regulatory protections or programs in place in New Jersey. All of the reams of regulations prohibiting and limiting development in or near environmentally sensitive areas remain in place. Plus, the current wastewater management plans will continue to be in place until the new ones are adopted. Lastly, all development applications must still satisfy stringent requirements from multiple agencies.
The proposed legislation is an interim solution that will help fuel New Jersey's economic engine while maintaining our existing water quality protections.
Ted Zangari is founder of the Smart Growth Economic Development Coalition and a member of Sills Cummis & Gross, in Newark.