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Opinion: Why Didn’t DEP Publicize Wholesale Rewriting of Coastal Rules?

Agency that can’t let the smallest factoid escape without a press release had virtually nothing to say about ‘streamlining’ nearly 1,000 pages of environmental regulations

potter
Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter

For immediate release: the Christie administration announces placement of colorful new recycling bins in the DEP building lobby, further evidence of Gov. Chris Christie’s commitment to protecting the environment.

Did you miss that particular press release from the DEP’s energetic press office, which daily churns out articles on how “green” the Christie administration is? Doubtless you did miss it, because it is purely fictional.

But it is an only slightly satirical version of what I find almost every day on my office computer, as the DEP seldom misses an opportunity to tout the latest “achievement” of the Christie administration by its favorite whipping boy, the DEP -- be they ever so grand or humble.

Recently, there was this announcement: “Division of Fish and Wildlife experts successfully remove arrow from the muzzle of a deer in Marlboro.” It’s nice to know that, courtesy of the DEP, one of the many thousands of deer roaming the Garden State has been spared the huntsman’s wrath, if only temporarily.

But what about some really important stuff, like the DEP’s promulgation of nearly 1,000 pages of new regulations to govern development of virtually everything along New Jersey’s threatened coastline? About that, not a word from the press office.

Back in summer 2014, the DEP trumpeted Christie’s intentions to consolidate all coastal protection and development laws and regulations into one unified, “streamlined” set of rules, as part of the governor’s “common sense” approach to environmental rules -- code for the fewer and less restrictive the better.

Now comes July 6, 2015, a year after dozens of environmental organizations testified against the new coastal rules, and the day that the DEP formally adopted those very controversial new regulations Did the DEP issue a press release? It did not, even though it was reinterpreting such major statutes as the Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA), Coastal Wetlands Act, Waterfront Development Act, Freshwater Wetlands Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, and Water Quality Planning Act.

Unless you were lucky enough to read very closely the DEP website on July 6, 2015, you would have had no idea that the DEP had just rewritten so many planning, permitting, and enforcement rules, some going back a half century.

Which brings us back to the question: given the DEP’s propensity for issuing breathless press releases almost every day on almost any subject, why did it enact the new rules -- which excited so much opposition when first proposed -- without any press release?

When I raised that question on a phone call to Larry Hanja, the congenial head of the DEP’s public information office, he said it was not an intentional omission. The agency simply doesn’t “have the staff to write up everything done by the DEP.” Fair enough, but his answer avoids the question about DEP informational priorities in the face of what sounds like a plea for more staff. Is the fate of one deer more important for the public to know than the fate of the Jersey Shore?

I think not.

While Hanja sounds sincere enough, the suspicion lingers that when the agency purportedly streamlined hundreds of pages of regulations in one massive stroke of regulatory craftsmanship, it did not exactly want to stir up more opposition and protest from the many people and organizations that had testified against the new regulations this past summer.

Who exactly are we talking about? At the risk of missing a few of those standing up to oppose the sweeping realignment of coastal protection rules to facilitate more construction along the coast, here is the lineup (in no particular order):

  • Jersey Shore Surfrider Foundation

  • Association of NJ Environmental Commissions

  • American Littoral Society

  • NJ Environmental Lobby

  • NJ Audubon

  • NJ Baykeeper

  • Nature Conservancy

  • NJ Climate Adaptation Alliance

  • Environment NJ

  • Sierra Club, NJ Chapter

  • Cohansey Area Watershed Association

  • Clean Ocean Action

  • Delaware Riverkeeper Network

  • Save Barnegat Bay Coalition

  • NJ Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

In all, some 164 persons testified or submitted written comments, mostly to express opposition or to call for amendments to the amendments. In particular Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey -- a statewide environmental membership organization -- placed into the record more than 19,000 postcards of opposition to the proposed rulemaking.

Their reasons for opposing the new rules are too many to list and explain in one column, but all had a common concern: The DEP’s highest priority must be the protection of the Jersey coastline against the constant pressure to develop it in ways that risk not only harm to those attracted to reside or work in new coastal developments, but also to the public interest in preserving one of New Jersey’s most beautiful and productive ecosystems.

R. William Potter is a partner in the Princeton-based law firm Potter and Dickson. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or any client.

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