Municipal developments in limbo

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:22

    Revisions to county wastewater management plan play havoc with approved sites, By Tom Hoffman A power shift in Trenton could end up placing severe restrictions on major housing developments being planned throughout Sussex County. In years past, the state Planning Commission called the shots on planning issues affecting the state. That includes wastewater management plans established by each county to support controlled housing development, according to Eric Snyder, Director of the Sussex County Division of Planning in Newton. But more recently, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has inserted itself in municipal and county planning decisions. It’s begun imposing severe restrictions on land development to protect environmentally sensitive areas and endangered species. And this tactic is having major repercussions on planned housing developments in Sussex County, said Snyder. According to Sussex County Administrator John Eskilson, the DEP is trying to cut the county’s total sewer service area in half — from roughly 16,000 acres countywide to about 8,000 acres. If the changes stick, the plan would eliminate or severely curtail several major housing developments in the works, including Crystal Springs II in Hardyston Township, plans for new housing on The Legends Resort & Country Club property in Vernon and plans by Wantage Township to add housing around the McCoy’s Corner section, said Eskilson. The DEP land development restrictions would also fly in the face of state mandates for townships to meet their affordable housing obligations under the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), added Snyder. Tough spot “We’re in a very difficult position,” said Eskilson in a phone interview last week. “Municipalities are struggling to survive, they’re looking at new ways of growth. If there’s no base growth, I don’t know how you survive as a municipality.” Eskilson said Sussex County is reviewing its options for expanding its sewer service area to support housing developments already planned throughout the region. This includes the possibility for the county to request an extension and resubmit its wastewater management plan to the DEP in November, he said. Karen Hershey, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the agency is working with Sussex County on its wastewater management plan on an “ongoing” basis. What they’re doing Some municipal officials, such as Vernon Township Manager Melinda Carlton, sound more guarded. “It will definitely impact (development plans in Vernon), there’s no question about it,” she said. When asked whether there are any options available for Vernon that may help keep planned housing developments on track, she said that Sussex County officials are “doing everything they can” to get the DEP to “relax” its stance on sewer service area restrictions for the region. She added that Vernon’s Mayor Austin Carew has written to Gov. Jon Corzine to intercede on the township’s behalf. “The only other influence we have is political.” For its part, the Hardyston Township Municipal Utilities Authority is submitting an application to the DEP within the next few weeks in hopes of extending its sewer main to the previously-approved Crystal Springs II project, according to Township Manager Marianne Smith. “We’ve been proactive because it’s very serious,” said Smith. Hardyston has spent the past year working with the county and the DEP to maintain its existing sewer service boundaries to protect previously-approved housing projects such as Crystal Springs II, Indian Fields and Walden Village as well as lands approved for retail development on Route 94, said Smith. Jim Doherty, Wantage Township Administrator, said the County wastewater management plan was developed using “extensive” review and input from local officials and it would have met Wantage’s needs for the foreseeable future. Instead, he said, the DEP rejected the input from local and county officials “in favor of unworkable and unrealistic ‘one size fits all’ regulations developed in Trenton.” A case in point Snyder points to an area of Wantage Township as an example of where the DEP’s “one size fits all approach” to blocking sewer service to protect endangered species or environmentally-sensitive areas is “flatly wrong.” Wantage has proposed building housing communities in reclaimed gravel pits, said Snyder. “There’s nothing endangered or environmentally sensitive in a gravel pit,” said Snyder. State planning questioned “This situation illustrates the stupidity of the entire wastewater management planning process that the State of New Jersey has created,” said Jim Doherty, Wantage Township Administrator. “If the NJDEP is simply going to mandate what areas can and cannot be included for sewer service all over the state, then why don’t they just do that to begin with, and save the taxpayers of New Jersey hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on local and county engineers, lawyers and planners, whose input just gets thrown out in Trenton? Why create the false illusion, at considerable taxpayer expense, that our local needs and planning efforts mean anything at all?”