Lawmakers Rap DEP, Roll Back Rule on Septic Tanks in Highlands

Maneuver made possible with rarely used legislative tool allowing rules to be rescinded if found inconsistent with law

In a rare step, the Legislature yesterday rescinded a controversial rule that critics argued threatened drinking-water from the Highlands by allowing more development in the preservation area of the region.

The action represents a huge win for the conservation community, which has lobbied intensely against the rule change by the Department of Environmental Protection since it was proposed a year-and-a-half ago.

In revoking the rule, the lawmakers agreed with opponents who contended the rule allowing greater density of septic tanks in parts of the 880,000-acre region is inconsistent with the legislative intent of the original law creating the New Jersey Highlands.

“Not only is the Highlands region the source of drinking water for more than half of our residents, but it also contains precious natural resources, such as clean air, forest and wetlands, pristine watersheds, and many significant historical sites and recreational opportunities,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the resolution.

The state constitution gives the Legislature the authority to block new rules, but the tool has been used only once in recent years, overturning a civil service regulation adopted by the Christie administration. A previous bid to rescind another environmental rule fell short last year.

Septic tanks and groundwater

The rule, adopted last summer, involves a highly technical dispute over septic tanks and the risk leaking systems pose to groundwater supplies in the region. The change adopted by the DEP would allow 1,100 more septic systems on 69,000 acres of protected land in the Highlands, an expansion the department and others argued would not degrade water supplies.

The overturning of the regulation narrowly passed the Senate by the minimum 21 votes necessary, and those were only obtained by holding the voting machine open for more than five minutes while supporters lined up backing. It passed in the Assembly, too, with the bare minimum 41 votes.

Only Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) spoke, urging colleagues to reject the bill rescinding the rule, arguing the Highlands law has caused the loss of many jobs and foreclosures within the region.

The new rule also had backing from the New Jersey Farm Bureau, whose court suit led the state agency to rewrite the regulations dealing with septic systems. The former argued the old rules created an unfair burden for property owners in the preservation area.

But the Highlands is viewed by many conservation groups as one of the state’s premier environmental sites, safeguarding the drinking water of six million residents and providing recreational and other outdoor opportunities in the nation’s most densely populated state.

“The Legislature showed its commitment to the citizen it represents by this action, which is intentionally an arduous procedure and a last resort,’’ said Elliottt Ruga, policy director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.

“This is a big victory for the Highlands and for clean water,’’ added Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “More importantly, it’s upholding the integrity of the Highlands Act and the right of the Legislature to say a rule weakens legislative intent.’’

Jennifer Coffey, executive director of ANJEC (Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions) agreed, saying the Legislature stood up to Gov. Chris Christie’s rollback of protections in the Highlands. “I am hopeful that is the sign of a bipartisan return to protecting and restoring natural resources in the Garden State,’’ she said.