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D&R Canal Commission Doesn't Plan to Go Quietly -- or at All

Low-profile state agency resolves to fight administration's recommendation to abolish it.

A little known state commission is refusing to buckle under pressure from the Christie administration to quietly go away.

In its monthly meeting in Stockton, the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission yesterday adopted a resolution indicating it will fight an administration recommendation to abolish the agency. Under the state's plan, the commission's functions would switch to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), a move giving the latter responsibility for overseeing land-use decisions in one of the most visited state parks.

Beyond being one of the state’s most popular parks, the canal provides drinking water to more than 1.5 million people and is part of the National Recreational Trail system. A recent bird survey found 160 species of birds in the park, with 90 of them nesting there. The70-mile canal also is a reminder of the days when the delivery of freight depended upon a team of mules or steam tugboats.

The action by the commission, with only the DEP’s representative voting against it, marks a ratcheting up of a dispute over the efforts to abolish the agency. The commission, which has only one employee -- and he is scheduled to retire within two weeks -- is entirely funded by permit fees and relies on no taxpayer funds.

Nevertheless, it was targeted for elimination as part of the administration’s efforts to streamline government and eliminate duplicative functions by abolishing more than 60 boards and commissions. While most people have never heard of the D&R commission, the decision to dump it was not greeted warmly by those who deal with it.

Fifteen of the 21 municipalities through which the canal runs and where the commission oversees land-use development, passed resolutions opposing its elimination. At the commission's meeting yesterday, about 40 people showed up to protest its abolishment, about eight times the number who usually attend. In addition, the chairmen of the two primary environmental committees in the legislature have sent letters to the administration expressing support for the commission’s continued existence.

"We’re very frustrated, but also very determined that this commission has to remain independent," said John Loos, one of the five commissioners who voted for the resolution standing up to the administration’s plans.

In the resolution, the commissioners rejected two candidates from DEP proposed to replace Ernest Hahn, its current executive director and sole employee. Instead, the commission decided to offer the job to another candidate it had interviewed. Also, the commission authorized the hiring of an engineer to assist the executive director.

If the state Treasury refuses to authorize the hires, the commission requested the Attorney General’s office to represent it in a proceeding to allow it to retain the employees it sought to hire, according to the resolution.

Apparently, the administration will not make an issue of the proposed hirings. Contacted yesterday, Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, said the commission has the legal right to hire whom it chooses. “That was their choice,’’ he said.

However, Ragonese said the agency plans to go ahead with its plans to switch the commission’s land-use functions to the DEP, saying it is part of the administration’s plans to scale back the size of government and to make it more efficient.

"We think it’s done admirable work," Ragonese said, referring to the commission, "but we believe the responsibilities can be handled here."

That view is questioned by some. Under the commission’s regulations, a land-use project within the 400-square mile drainage basin must have a decision within 45 days, or the project is automatically approved. In three decades, the commission failed to meet that deadline only 10 times, Hahn told a legislative committee last month, an achievement that foes of the move say the agency would have a difficult time matching.

That test could come very quickly. According to Hahn, 25 projects are awaiting review. If they are not completed review by his last day at work (May 25), they will be automatically classified as approved, beginning on May 28, Hahn said, in an affidavit filed with the resolution.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, said he is not surprised by the state’s actions. “They want automatic stamps that will do whatever they want to do," he said. “Instead of being independent, they want them to follow the administration's agenda to roll back environmental protections."

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