At Packed Highlands Hearing, Suspicion and Skepticism Run Deep

Is a new rule proposal to allow more septic tanks the gateway to development or another threat to state’s drinking water?

The state’s bid to open up a portion of the Highlands to development won both praise and criticism last evening, with some hoping it could enhance land values while others fearing it will degrade the drinking water for millions.

The contrary views were aired at a packed hearing attended by about 100 people in Chester at the New Jersey Highlands Council offices on a proposal by the Department of Environmental Protection to allow more building in approximately 69,000 acres of the most protected part of the region.

The rule proposes to increase the density of septic tanks in the preservation area of the Highlands, the latest in a series of regulatory changes environmentalists say weaken water-quality protections in the state being pushed by the Christie administration.

The dispute, to a degree, focuses on a highly technical debate over what levels of nitrate may be absorbed into the soil, and eventually leach into groundwater supplying up to 6 million people. But the larger issue remains a still-raging debate over the creation of the Highlands, a forested expanse of more than 860,000 aces of gently rolling hills, farmland, and forests.

“We need your help, but that’s not it. Find some money for the farmers and landowners,’’ said Hank Krumpp, a farmer in the Highlands, echoing a frequent complaint of property-owners who say the 12-year old law has ruined land values.

David Shope, a farmer from Long Valley, who bought his land in 1971, put it succinctly. “I’m still waiting to speculate on it,’’ he said. “Sprawl is in the eye of the beholder.’’

But that is precisely what many conservationists fear. ”What we’re seeing right now is a recipe for sprawl in the Highlands,’’ warned David Peifer, Highlands project director for the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

Constance Stroh, president of the Upper Rockaway River Watershed Association, agreed, in part. “With this rule, the DEP is responding to the complaints of land speculators,’’ she said.

Elliott Ruga, policy director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, said the change proposed by the department bows to pressure from developers. “I question whether the New Jersey DEP understands the values of the resources it is designated to protect,’’ he said.

But the two sides differed over how significant the proposed changes to the septic tank standards would be.

Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, noted existing law and regulations already allow 9,565 new septic systems; the proposed rule change would only add 1,145 new tanks, “but in no way makes it easier to build anywhere.’’

That view is disputed by opponents who said in justifying the change, the state based its reasoning on thousands of tests for nitrate, a gauge for measuring groundwater quality, on private wells in developed areas, not pristine areas — likely to be a more accurate measurement of background levels of nitrate.

They repeatedly argued the data used to justify the change in the rules was flawed, and not based on science.

“The DEP is already failing to protect groundwater standards,’’ argued Bill Kibler, director of policy for the Raritan Headwaters Association. “This ensures that groundwater quality will continue to degrade.’’

Because of the enormous interest in the rule proposal, the department has agreed to extend the public comment period. It must respond to all of the comments before adopting the rule, which also could face scrutiny from legislators, if environmentalists convince them to examine the proposal.

The Legislature already is threatening to rescind a recently adopted rule proposal critics say also will threaten drinking water supplies and potentially increase the risk of flooding. The proposal adopted last month also has raised concerns from federal agencies who worry it might undercut national standards governing water quality and flood protections.