Legislature, Administration Bump Heads on Highlands Development

DEP rule would boost number of septic systems; lawmakers argue that is against original intent of law protecting 800,000-acre preserve

The Legislature and Christie administration are heading in polar-opposite directions on how to manage growth in the New Jersey Highlands, the source of drinking water for at least five million residents.

A Senate committee yesterday approved a resolution that aims to block a new rule — quietly adopted last week by the Department of Environmental Protection — that would open up some of the most sensitive land in the Highlands to development by allowing more septic systems to be deployed.

The rule, signed by DEP Commissioner Bob Martin and expected to be published early next month, is opposed by most of the state’s environmental organizations, who view it as being inconsistent with the 13-year-old law protecting more than 800,000 acres of forests, rolling hills, and waters in the Highlands.

The resolution (SCR-148) also concludes the new rule violates provisions of the original law creating the Highlands, particularly by leading to degradation of water quality in the region. If passed by both houses, it could lead to rescission of the regulation, the latest bid by the administration to weaken the state’s stringent regulations to protect land, air, and water, according to critics.

“I feel it is time to get it on the record as opposing it,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor and chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. Smith, the leading environmental advocate in the Legislature, has clashed repeatedly with the DEP over its efforts to streamline environmental programs.

The new rule will continue to provide the high standards for protection of the Highlands and the region’s water quality, while providing modest opportunities for economic development, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP. He said the new standards are consistent with the 2004 law, which requires the agency to set density requirements for septic systems to prevent degradation of water.

The controversy revolves around a technical dispute over how much nitrate pollution stems from allowing increased development of septic systems. If the rule stands, up to 1,145 new septic systems could be located within 400,000 acres of the preservation area in the Highlands.

In pushing for adoption of the resolution, Smith cited a memo recounting testimony from a previous public hearing in which various experts questioned the DEP’s scientific basis for coming up with the new standard, including using well data samples from largely developed areas instead of more pristine forested areas.

For that reason, the experts concluded the analysis is flawed, according to Smith, a point echoed by some conservationists who spoke in favor of the resolution yesterday before the committee.

Since 1984, sampling by the Raritan Headwaters Association has shown a steady increase of nitrates in groundwater, said Bill Kibler, policy director of the group. He blamed increasing suburban development within the watershed. “We’ve lost a lot of farms, and gained a lot of folks,’’ he said.

But Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, called the new standards proposed by the DEP appropriate and long overdue. “This is no great giveaway. It is still a conservative target,’’ he said.

The committee amended the resolution, meaning it will have to be reconsidered by the Assembly if approved by the Senate. If both houses approve the resolution, the DEP can withdraw the rule, amend it, or go ahead with it as planned. The Legislature could overturn the rule by adopting the resolution once again.