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Lawmakers Ready to Say ‘No’ to More Development in Highlands

Legislators move to roll back rule, issue rare rebuke to executive branch that originally passed regulation

Ignoring a plea from state environmental officials, lawmakers yesterday moved to rescind a new rule that would open up forested parts of the Highlands to more development.

The unanimous vote by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee makes it more likely the Legislature will act to revoke the regulation by the end of the lame-duck legislative session in January in what would be rare rebuke to the executive branch.

The dispute is the latest in what has been an ongoing battle between environmentalists and the Christie administration over the Highlands, a more than 800,000-acre region in central and northern New Jersey of forested hills, lakes and ample farmland.

The regulation, adopted by the state Department of Environmental Protection this past summer, allows for development in ecologically sensitive parts of the Highlands by increasing the density of septic tanks in those areas.

Much of the state’s environmental community and Democratic lawmakers view the new rule as inconsistent with the 2004 law creating the Highlands Act, a measure designed to preserve an area of wide biological diversity and a source of drinking water to millions of residents.

Degrading water quality

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the law and chairman of the committee, agreed. “There’s no doubt in my mind if we allow this rule to stay in place, it will allow the degradation of those waters,’’ he said, prior to the vote on a resolution (SCR-163).

Ray Cantor, a special advisor to the DEP commissioner, argued the rule did not violate legislative intent, insisting it aims merely to be consistent with the Highlands regional master plan.

“The administration believes we got it right,’’ Cantor told the committee, urging it to defer action on blocking the regulation to allow a new administration in January to decide the issue for itself.

But critics argued the rule is a back-door attempt to weaken protections enacted by the Highlands Act.

“The Legislature gets to decide what legislative intent is,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey arm of Clean Water Action.

Impaired property value

As in the past, owners of Highlands property criticized regulations they say have impaired their property values and called for changes in the law.

Septic systems can leak nitrates, which can contaminate groundwater. How much so is a matter of much debate. Ed Smith, a Warren County freeholder, told the lawmakers he had a 60-year-old septic system on property his family owned tested, and found no nitrates. He argued the whole model for the basis of development in the Highlands is flawed.

Earlier this summer, the Legislature gave final approval to an identical resolution, calling for the DEP to amend, rescind, or withdraw the new rule. With the agency failing to act, the resolution was reintroduced earlier this month.

If both houses vote again to adopt the resolution, the rule will be rescinded, which would require the DEP to adopt a new regulation governing septic-tank use in the Highlands.

“With a little tail wind, we may get this thing done,’’ Smith said.

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