By MICHAEL MILLER | Staff Writer –

Environmental groups this week opposed two bills they said would undermine water quality in New Jersey.
The first, A-4347, would extend the lifespan of some construction-permit approvals by more than a year in the wake of the real-estate market collapse and the recession.

The second, A-4345, would give sewer authorities more than a year longer to update their wastewater management plans, which in a way serve as a blueprint for development.

That bill also expands sewer-service areas by including all properties that have site-plan approval, subdivision approval or construction permits, among others, in towns that have not yet adopted updated wastewater management plans.

The state also would have to approve or reject site-specific revisions to these plans within 90 days and would have to hold public hearings whenever it removed a property from a sewer-service area.

The bill also would create a new state board to oversee mapping and models for new sewer-service areas.

Environmentalists said the bill, which is pending approval by the Assembly Housing and Local Government Committee, would make it easier for developers to add or expand public sewer systems, leading to more development and sprawl.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the bill cedes authority for water-quality planning over to the State Planning Commission instead of the state Department of Environmental Protection or DEP.

“We are very concerned the Legislature will be the Grinch that stole our water supply. It’s really about the Legislature taking care of special interests instead of public interests,” he said.

Tittel said the measure would delay the start of stricter water-quality rules designed to keep sewers off sensitive land. It also would relax rules over developments that rely on septic systems, he said.

The Smart Growth Economic Development Coalition, a pro-business lobbying group, endorses the legislation. The coalition said the bills will give the state more time to clarify what areas can add sewers.

“The DEP plays God and with a thick Magic Marker decides which properties to rule in and rule out,” coalition spokesman Ted Zangari said.

The new wastewater rules would eliminate as much as 300,000 acres of formerly sewer-worthy properties, according to the Sierra Club’s estimates. This is unfair to private landowners, Zangari said.

“You’re talking about a property that could be instantly devalued without any compensation and no notice to the landowner based on junk science,” he said.

Charlie Norkis, director of the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority, said Zangari is right about the state using outdated maps to identify appropriate sewer areas.

“Some of the maps they have – we’re trying to reconcile with the DEP. The maps are not accurate,” he said.

Jim Waltman, of the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, said the state needs stricter rules on sewers now to curb sprawl.

“Why does sprawl continue to grow? It grows in direct response to infrastructure – where you put water mains and sewer lines,” he said. “Rolling back protections for clean water is the last thing we should do.”

Dena Mottola Jaborska, director of Environment New Jersey, said the state will lose more open space if the bills pass.

“A lot of the natural resources we’re losing are important to keeping our state healthy and the quality of our water good,” she said.