Developers hoping for new sewer service bill to energize projects
IT'S BEEN SEVEN months since a deadline for counties to submit wastewater management plans has passed, leaving specific development proposals open to challenges and creating uncertainty statewide, according to developers.
But lawmakers say they're weighing new legislation that could make it easier to adopt the plans, and developers hope the situation can be resolved this year.
Michael Allen Seeve, president of Mountain Development Corp., said it doesn't help the state's economy to have continuing uncertainty over rule enforcement.
"It's a big issue for a lot of people that have a lot of land in their portfolio, and it's a timely issue ... the economy is only slowly improving," Seeve said.
In 2008, the state Department of Environmental Protection updated its water quality management planning rule, which makes county and municipal governments responsible for updating wastewater management plans. The rule removes environmentally sensitive features - such as wetlands and endangered species - from sewer service areas, which encompass properties served by wastewater treatment systems. That effectively could prevent development by limiting sewer service in parts of the state.
Right now, Seeve said, environmental or neighborhood groups can attempt to block developments in areas that don't have state-approved wastewater management plans - a major deterrent to building.
"This is a statewide issue, and unless you like higher property taxes, I think most people would like to see sites be developed" so they can provide tax revenue and economic benefit, he said.
Three of the state's 21 counties -Hudson, Mercer and Middlesex - had approved plans by the deadline. Camden, Cumberland, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties trail in submitting plans, while others either have submitted plans or will do so by next year, according to state officials.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization may challenge some developments in areas without approved wastewater plans, and said the state should be barring those developments under the current law.
"The state's in violation of the law," Tittel said, adding that poor wastewater management threatens drinking water and the environment and adds to flood risk.
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said the state is still working with counties to complete the plans under existing rules.
"We're committed to bringing common sense to the wastewater quality management rule," Hajna said.
Short of withdrawing the rule, the state should make it easier for counties to either update their plans or continue under current plans, said Michael MeGiiinness, CEO of the New Jersey chapter of commercial real estate development association NAIOP. He said there would be an advantage to splitting off sewer planning from the more involved septic planning.
"Initially, let's just deal with sewer issues, and let's come back and then deal with the septic issues," McGuinness said.
Splitting the two issues would be beneficial, according to Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for planning advocacy nonprofit New Jersey Future.
"I think the state definitely needs to clarify where we can have sewers and have that dense development," and where the environment should be preserved, Sturm said, noting that $4 million in federal funding has been devoted to the wastewater planning.
"It was a very ambitious rule, but we're so close, we think it's time to find a way to wrap it up," she said.
A legislator familiar with the issue said Trenton may take up the issue in the coming weeks, with the goal of eliminating bottlenecks on potential construction.