Lawmakers Ready to Revoke Rule Allowing More Development in Highlands

Tom Johnson | January 2, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Controversial DEP regulation eases restrictions on number of septic tanks that are allowed in forested expanse supplying 6 million people with potable water

For the first time, the Legislature appears poised to revoke a controversial environmental rule that opens up some of the sensitive lands in the Highlands to more development.

Both houses are expected Thursday to vote on a resolution to rescind the new regulation adopted by the state Department of Environmental Protection this past summer, a change in rules that increases the density of septic tanks allowed in forested parts of the more than 800,000-acre region.

If approved, the resolution (SCR-163) would mark an unusual rebuke to the Christie administration in its final days, and a rare victory in fighting the executive branch’s efforts to ease protections in an expanse providing drinking water to six million residents.

Previously, lawmakers approved a similar resolution calling on the DEP to amend, rescind, or withdraw the rule as being inconsistent with the legislative intent of a 2004 law establishing wide protections for the Highlands region.

DEP officials have repeatedly defended the new rule, saying it is consistent with the Highlands Regional Master Plan and arguing it will not degrade water supplies, but merely provide a reasonable opportunity for economic growth.

The controversy revives an ongoing debate over the Highlands Act, a law enacted in a bitter legislative dispute more than a decade ago. In this instance, the issues involve highly technical disputes over how much leaks from septic tanks end up contaminating groundwater supplies with nitrates.

The change in rules allows 1,100 more septic systems on 69,000 acres of protected land in the Highlands, an expansion department officials and some local residents insist will not impact water quality. The DEP cited a U.S. Geological Survey of drinking-water wells to justify the new rule.

But critics argued the survey was flawed, using data largely from existing developed areas instead of places where building is largely restricted or absent. They contend the expansion of development in the preservation area is a rollback of the law’s protections for water quality.

“The Highlands is way too important of a resource for New Jersey,’’ said Elliott Ruga, policy director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, a conservation organization. “It’s an investment we have to maintain.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. He predicted the resolution will pass, already having demonstrated strong support on both sides of the aisle.

“To us, to allow additional development in the preservation area is unconscionable,’’ Tittel said.

Previously, the Legislature appeared ready to revoke another DEP rule dealing with flood hazard and water protections, but stopped short when a last-minute compromise was reached between Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.