The Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission oversees one of the most popular state parks in New Jersey. It manages land use to protect drinking water supplies for 20 percent of the state’s population. The fees it collects have helped fund $20 million in improvements without any taxpayer money.
Late next month, however, its lone remaining full-time employee, its executive director, will retire, leaving the fate of the 36-year-old commission up in the air, a source of growing consternation among its advocates and some legislators.
The commission is one of more than 60 boards and other agencies targeted for elimination by the Christie administration because they are no longer relevant or perform duplicative functions with other state departments. The fate of the commission apparently rests with Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin, who has yet to decide whether to accept the recommendation to abolish the agency.
In a rare joint meeting yesterday of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee and Senate Environment and Energy Committee, lawmakers heard pleas from commission members and executive director Ernest Hahn to keep the commission alive, or at the very least, urge the administration to replace Hahn so it can continue to function.
The lack of staff, advocates argued, could bring a halt to development around the canal, which runs 70 miles from New Brunswick to Trenton and then follows the Delaware River north up to Frenchtown.
"It’s sad to be a New Jersey resident and a developer and see something that works get killed by inaction," said David Knights, a commissioner for the Delaware and Raritan, who noted that its efforts to support rational development in the 400-square mile drainage basin has won praise from the development community. "The development community wants this commission to exist."
The commission ensures any new development projects are consistent with the park’s master plan, which requires that there be no increase in water pollution and stormwater discharges. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said abolishing the commission would jeopardize the state park, water supplies and other natural resources without offering any savings to taxpayers.
"The commission brings a planning and regional perspective to development applications that may impact the canal. They have skills that DEP does not have when it comes to land-use planning," Tittel said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed hope that the commission would not be abolished.
"This a real gem," said Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset). "This is an asset we should be proud of."
John Hazen, director of DEP’s legislative office, said no action has been taken on the recommendation to eliminate the commission. The department does plan to fill the executive director’s position, but not to replace the other two full-time commission staffers who were transferred back to DEP at the end of last year.
That failed to satisfy Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate committee, and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex). After the hearing, they said they plan to draft a joint letter to Gov. Chris Christie and the DEP commissioner, urging them to fully staff the commission as well as asking that they reconsider the recommendation to get rid of it.