Stormwater Measure Advances in State Assembly, Opponents Air Criticisms

Bill would facilitate new utilities that could impose fees on property owners. Money would go toward repair or replacement of failing stormwater systems

Lawmakers yesterday moved closer to approving a much-debated measure that aims to give communities the resources to fix aging stormwater systems that foul the state’s waters and increase flooding.

Despite protests from business interests, the Assembly Appropriations Committee advanced legislation (S-1073) that would allow towns and other entities — such as county or regional authorities — to fund projects to manage flooding and runoff from rainfall.

The bill, kicked around by lawmakers for years and previously vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie, is viewed by proponents as a big first step in addressing a $16 billion problem — repairing and replacing failing stormwater systems across New Jersey.

Modeled on programs already in place in 41 other states, the bill would give towns and other entities the leeway to set up stormwater utilities that could impose fees on owners of properties with large areas of impervious cover, like parking lots, malls and other developments.

‘…looking to tax the rain’

But critics, including Republican members of the committee, denounced the bill as just another tax that would impose another layer of bureaucracy on government in New Jersey.

“Here we are looking to tax rain. What’s next? Air?’’ asked Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R-Bergen), who argued other pressing water problems ought to be addressed first, including lead in drinking water and hundred-year-old water mains that leak potable water before it ever reaches customers.

“New Jersey already has too many layers of government,’’ added Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey. Hart said the state Department of Environmental Protection already has in place an extensive permitting program to deal with the management of stormwater.

But proponents noted the bill is merely permissive, only giving local governments and others the tool and resources needed to begin fixing the runoff that is the major source of water pollution and a big contributor to flooding problems across the state.

The problem has been ‘neglected’

“It’s a financing tool that creates the resources to address a problem that has been neglected,’’ said Michael Pisauro, policy director of the Watershed Institute.

“This is a bill you can’t afford to vote against today,’’ added Britta Wenzel, executive director of Save Barnegat Bay. There are 2,000 failing stormwater systems in and around Barnegat Bay, according to state officials.

More than 1,800 stormwater utilities exist in 41 states across the country. These utilities assess a fee based on how much impervious surface, such as concrete, rooftops or pavement, is on a property. These kinds of surfaces contribute to flooding problems and cause runoff to pollute waterways.

The bill, and an identical measure passed by the Senate, were amended by the committee, putting the legislation in position for a vote by the full Assembly as early as Thursday.

“Local flooding is a huge problem and local leaders need the ability to protect their communities from it,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.