Opinion: DEP Water Quality Management Rules -- An Opportunity, Not a Battle
A broader planning framework recognizes that rules are about saying 'yes," as well as 'no'
[Lucy Vandenberg is the executive director of PlanSmart NJ, a statewide nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the quality of community life through sound land use planning and regional cooperation.]
Amid much controversy, Gov. Chris Christie earlier this month signed a law providing an extension to counties to submit updated water quality management plans. These plans are important because they delineate where sewers will be permitted and, consequently, play a large part in where, and at what density, New Jersey will grow into the future.
Under the new law, county extensions are automatically granted for six months, with up to two years leeway at the approval of the DEP commissioner. In the meantime, counties will continue to operate under outdated sewer service maps.
The environmental community strongly opposed the law, fearing that it will further degrade New Jersey's water quality and permit development in environmentally sensitive areas. Conservationists contend that up to 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land would be removed from sewer service areas under the new mapping. The U.S. EPA similarly warned that the law could violate the Clean Water Act.
The New Jersey Builders Association, NAIOP, and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association supported the bill, calling for greater predictability to help foster economic growth and competitiveness while New Jersey climbs out of a recession.
While the "war" has been described as over, with the environmental community emerging as the losers and the business community as the winners, this was actually just an early skirmish, with the real war still ahead.
Actually, this analogy is wholly inadequate to describe the situation at hand. While there are always perceived winners and losers, in this case, New Jersey has an opportunity to take a fresh look, and better balance all planning interests.
It is useful to go back a bit in time to understand how we got here. DEP adopted the new Water Quality Management Rules in 2008. Counties were given a year to update their plans. While some forged ahead, others struggled with the new requirements and were slow to move forward. The negotiation process between DEP and the counties was laborious, with discussions taking place over microscopic issues such as whether individual lots should be in or out of sewer service areas.
While this undertaking was time intensive, expensive, and unnecessarily detailed, that in and of itself would not be sufficient reason to delay or, more drastically, jettison, the 2008 water quality management rules.
Rather, the crux of the problem has to do with a failure to balance multiple planning objectives.
The DEP, while scrutinizing all possible environmental constraints that might favor retraction from a sewer service area, never looked -- or was directed to look -- at the big picture. What big picture might they have looked to? The State Development and Redevelopment Plan. The State Plan, in addition to considering environmental protection, also identifies other priorities that New Jersey as a state should address -- priorities such as economic development, center-based and transit-oriented development, and affordable housing provision. The State Plan exists to balance these interests and, ideally, strives to maximize outcomes in each area. It is not intended to pursue one of these objectives over others.
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