The state’s 21 counties have submitted new sewer service plans to the Department of Environmental Protection, a step that very likely will guide where growth occurs in New Jersey over the next two decades.
The plans, much delayed in a contentious battle between environmentalists and developers, could spell out where sewer expansions may be allowed, an issue that drives economic growth. Equally important, the plans will determine how successful the state is in preserving and protecting environmentally sensitive lands.
The controversy over the plans has been raging since 2008, when the DEP adopted new water quality management rules that sought to modernize old sewer service maps. Conservationists backed the rules, saying they would have protected up to 300,000 acres of open space, wetlands, and habitat for endangered species.
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, confirmed that all 21 counties had submitted sewer service plans by the Sunday deadline. The agency hopes to adopt the plans by the end of the year. They will take out of sewer service more than 200,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land, he said.
Noting that the plans only protect two-thirds of the land preserved by the old rules, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, describe them as rollbacks, a significant giveaway to developers.
“Based on DEP’s own science, there are tens of thousands of environmentally sensitive lands they are throwing to builders,” Tittel said.
The old rules also were supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which described the regulations as among the best in the nation for taking a “comprehensive approach to wastewater management and help reduce the impact of suburban sprawl” in a letter issued this past January.
A bill () delayed those rules again and triggered a letter, from EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck. The measure passed in the lame-duck legislative session and was signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie.
DEP officials, however, defended the delay, saying the rules, while appearing effective on paper, proved unworkable in the real world in testimony before a Senate committee.
Whether the new sewer service plans prove effective in steering growth to areas that already have the capacity to handle more sewage remains unknown. If not, it could lead to as much as $435 million in additional wastewater treatment costs to New Jersey businesses and residents, according to a study by DeMicco & Associates, LLC.
Those familiar with the discussions between the counties and DEP officials say about 30,000 acres of land considered environmentally sensitive was included in the sewer service plans despite objections from the counties, particularly Monmouth County.
That view was disputed by Hajna, who said more than 50 square miles of land in Monmouth and Ocean counties was taken out of sewer service areas.
Chris Sturm, a senior policy analyst for New Jersey Future, agreed. In Ocean County, 33,000 acres of land were taken out of sewer service areas and another 40,000 acres were eliminated from sewer service areas in Monmouth County, Sturm said.
“It’s definitely a step forward,” Sturm said. “In most of the state, it’s the first time the plans have been updated in a long time. That’s why it’s such a milestone.”
Once the plans are finally approved, Sturm said it will ensure development will occur in a sustainable way in the future.
The water quality management rules were a long time coming. Federal environmental officials first ordered the updating of sewer service plans in 1996. The new rules offered protections from sewer expansions to trout systems and endangered species habitat, as well as imposing tougher rules for new septic tank systems.
Since then, the rules have been challenged in the courts unsuccessfully by developers, while counties have spent millions of dollars completing updated sewer service areas.