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Split Legislature Gives Thumbs-Up to Stormwater Runoff Controls

Democratic majority champions measure as an effective tool for curbing pollution of NJ’s rivers and bays; GOP decries envisioned fees as ‘rain tax’

Flooding resized
Credit: David Robinson

The Legislature yesterday gave final approval to a bill that aims to fix one of New Jersey’s biggest environmental problems — managing runoff from storms that pollutes the state’s waters and exacerbates flooding.

In a vote largely along party lines in both houses, lawmakers voted to allow municipalities and other entities to set up stormwater utilities, a system in place in 41 other states aimed at reducing flooding and controlling dirty runoff from rainwater.

If signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, the legislation (S-1073), debated in one form or another for a decade, would allow newly created utilities to impose fees on parking lots and other impervious surfaces to fund improvements to failing existing stormwater systems.

Aging infrastructure, much of it poorly maintained, has long been blamed as the biggest source of pollution flowing into state waters. The contaminants found there — pesticides, oils, and heavy metals — mix with runoff to foul rivers, streams and bays. Only 5 percent of New Jersey’s waters meet federal standards for being fishable, swimmable and drinkable.

An effective tool or a ‘rain tax’?

The proposed fees, however, drew strong opposition from Republicans when the bill came up for a vote in the Assembly. They decried it as yet another burden on an already heavily taxed populace.

“It’s a rain tax on the people of New Jersey,’’ said Assemblyman Hal Wirth, a Republican from Sussex County. “I don’t know if a snow tax is coming next year.’’

Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen) said the bill lacked any cap on how much funds the fees could raise or on possible borrowing by the new utilities. “The last thing this state needs is more debt,’’ he said.

But advocates said the bill gives the towns the tools, and, more importantly, the resources to tackle what is a $16 billion problem.

“The lack of regulation and management of stormwater has caused extensive problems for New Jersey,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill. “Rainwater runoff carries with it debris, bacteria and chemicals which can lead to pollution of our waters and drinking water. This bill enables towns and counties to take the next step in stemming the problems caused by stormwater.’’

The legislation allows a municipality to assess a fee based on how much impervious surface — such as concrete or pavement — covers a property. The fee helps fund projects to reduce runoff by replacing failing stormwater systems that already exist and creating new buffers and green spaces to filter contaminants in runoff. Failing stormwater systems are an especially big problem in Ocean County, fouling Barnegat Bay and leading to beach closures.

“New Jersey’s polluted runoff problem affects all of us, and it isn’t going to go away on its own,’’ said Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water for New Jersey Future. The bill gives communities a way to access new resources in a fair and equitable manner, she said.

The bill cleared the Assembly 49-27. The Senate voted 25-11 to go along with amendments by the Assembly without debate.

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