WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Governor Chris Christie has until Tuesday to decide whether to sign a bill that environmentalists claim puts 300,000 acres of the state’s most ecologically sensitive land in the cross-hairs of developers.
For years these lands were beyond developers reach because local governments had blown their deadlines for waste-water master plans that were required before sewers could be constructed and developments proceed.
The bill S3156 gives local and county planning agencies more time to come up with their legally required waste water management plans that define where they will permit the laying of sewer lines.
That deadline was originally supposed to be April 2009 and was extended until April 2011. Now full implementation would be required by 2015.
Backers of the bill – which passed on the final day of the legislative session last week – say it gives officials a more realistic timeline to complete the planning and regulatory process.
Builders and developers say the regulatory relief is needed and does not threaten the state's water quality.
"Let's be clear here: We all want clean water,” said Carol Ann Short, Chief Operating Officer for the NJ Builders Association. “We all want a good economy, and we all want good development. And I think that is what this is intended to do.”
But environmentalists say that by extending the time for compliance the law makes it easier for developers to go after sensitive environmental lands existing law and regulations put off limits.
Environmentalists say that development generates contamination through the run-off of products like pesticides applied for lawn treatment and car oil from roadways into streams and rivers that re-charge the state's reservoirs.
At the same time they argue the conversion of wetlands and forests into parking lots and other impervious surfaces for development makes the state more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding.
The Army Corps of Engineers has already identified New Jersey's loss of wetlands and flood plains to development as an aggravating factor to the Garden State's chronic flooding that has caused billions in property damage.
The state's Department of Environmental Protection would not comment on the merits of the pending bill but did say existing 2008 water quality rules and sewer regulations were not workable, and that no counties had yet met their requirements under those rules.
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club, said claims by the bill's backers that it would help pending developments caught up in water quality regulation limbo were specious.
"This is not about getting a shopping center built in Woodbridge or an office park in Princeton,” he said. “This is all about paving over the headwaters of the Highlands and Barnegat Bay.”
Tittel said Sierra Club would appeal to the U.S. EPA to step in because he believes the legislation puts New Jersey on the path to violating the Federal Clean Water Act. He also said litigation was another possible strategy.
For years, builders have legally challenged New Jersey's efforts to set aside land out of concerns over the potential degrading of the state's water quality.
They contend the state has over reached and actually impinged on the right of landowners to use their property without compensating them for it.