Court Overrules DEP Permit to Discharge Wastewater in Highlands

Appellate remands paperwork to DEP, arguing it did not properly follow regulations when issuing original permit

The state failed to follow the law properly when it granted a permit to discharge wastewater from a treatment facility into Rockaway Creek in Tewskbury Township, according to an appellate court ruling.

In a win for the township, the Raritan Headwaters Association, New Jersey Highlands Coalition, and Sierra Club, the court remanded the case to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The case is the latest to see the state’s environmental groups in court challenging the actions of the DEP in approving projects over their protests about lands specially set aside by planning laws, such as the New Jersey Highlands Act and Pinelands Protection Act, in recent years.

The decision hinged largely on procedural grounds that the DEP failed to prove it had consulted with the New Jersey Highlands Council before it granted a permit to allow the Bellemead Development Corp. to dump sewage from an office park into the nearby creek, a Category 1 stream, the most pristine type of waterway in the state.

The court found that although there was evidence of a telephone conference call between the DEP and the Highlands Council, “there is no record of the Highlands Council’s assessment of the draft permit at all.’’

Under the court ruling, the DEP has to make a decision on the final permit within 60 days.

The project, on a 74-acre property, is located within the Planning Area of the New Jersey Highlands, which allows development to occur as long as it is consistent with the goals of the law.

“This is an immense victory for regional planning in New Jersey,’’ said Bill Kibler, policy director of the Raritan Headwaters Association. “The court made clear that DEP cannot issue or renew a permit that is inconsistent with the goals of the Highlands Regional Master Plan.’’

Aaron Kleinbaum, executive director of the Eastern Environmental Law Center, which brought the appeal, said the court made clear that the DEP cannot issue or renew a permit that is inconsistent with the goals of the Highlands Regional Master Plan.

But, the court stopped short in its decision of finding that the so-called RMP prohibits the kind of wastewater treatment facility Bellemead seeks to construct on its property

“More significantly, whether these facilities are incompatible with the RMP’s goals must be determined by the DEP in consultation with the Highlands Council, in the first instance and not by this court,’’ the judges ruled.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club, said the agency should reject the permit because it violates both the DEP’s and Highlands’ land-use regulations.