Stiff opposition for Vernon sewer plan

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:50

    VERNON-As the township headed toward a hearing on a wastewater management plan preparatory to building sewers for the planned town center and the Intrawest development at Mountain Creek, opponents stepped up their criticism of the science behind the project and its potential effect on local wells and wetlands. The hearing before the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection was scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Sussex County Freeholders meeting room in Newton. Town officials said that if all criteria are met and questions answered at the hearing, they expected to have approval within 15 days. The approval would be to discharge 265,000 gallons of water per day into the ground at a township-owned tract called Herald Square, located near the railroad tracks behind the George Inn and between Routes 94 and 517. Taken from town walls, returning the water to the local aquifer is a critical part of the plan. But before that can happen, upgrades and modifications need to be made to the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority treatment plant, which will process the sewage, in Hardyston. Construction on the plant, town officials say, would begin in 2006. Once construction starts, the town would be allowed to approve construction of the commercial buildings that would hook up to the sewers. "This is not for new housing," said Mayor Ira Weiner. "It's specifically designed to service the town center." Not everyone in town agrees. Both the Vernon Civic Association and the N.J. Sierra Club Northwest Group have objected vigorously to the project, and, as the hearing drew near, the VCA distributed flyers in the town questioning many aspects of the project. Dennis Miranda, the chairman of the Sierra Club Northwest Group, and Chris Fuehrer, president of the VCA, say the township's analysis of the project is flawed. The VCA's analysis, performed by local hydrogeologist John Robinson, says Fuehrer, determined that "the town's water balance study was inaccurate and based on poor science." "The bottom line," added Miranda, "is that studies didn't prove that there's sufficient water resources for the full build-out without negatively impacting natural resources." While the town insists it has thoroughly researched the plan, Miranda says that there are serious questions about the quality of the water being returned to Vernon and what effect it will have on wells, wetlands, and threatened species in the Black Creek watershed. "This is going to flow into a limestone formation," he said. "We don't know where it's going to go." The town's studies say that it will take two years for treated effluent to work its way back down into the town aquifer, by which time it will be free of any contaminants. But, Miranda said, "During drought periods, when the water table drops, will we see this discharge emerge in existing wells?" Miranda and Fuehrer are also concerned that Vernon's wastewater will commingle with other streams at the treatment plant, particularly with wastewater leaching from the county landfill in Lafayette. They say the water could contain metals and other contaminants. Township Health Officer Gene Osias agreed that was a concern during the planning process. He said the town addressed it by changing the design of the addition to the treatment plant so that the effluent returning to Vernon is treated separately from that coming from other sources, specifically the landfill. "They're not looking at science," said Town Manager Don Teolis of the opponents. "The facts speak for themselves. This is not bad." Town officials see the sewers and the commercial development they will support at Mountain Creek and the new town center as Vernon's salvation from escalating property taxes. Today, according to Teolis, 92 percent of the town's $1.7-billion evaluation is residential, which means that homeowners bear that same proportion of the Vernon's $18-million tax levy. Town officials say that the Intrawest development, when completed, will add $500 million to the tax base without adding any children to local schools. They anticipate another $300 million in commercial development in the town center. The opponents point out that apartments above commercial establishments could add children to the schools. Officials say the bottom line is that the sewers will bring in development that will lower the residential share of taxes to around 70 percent. Fuehrer says that the VCA is not opposed to the town center, but, he says, "It can be done without sewers." He said septic systems could serve the new construction. Town officials say that's not possible - not on the scale anticipated for the center. Miranda, whose Sierra Club is suing both the state and the town over the town center, saying that proper procedures for approval were not followed, said that taxes are not a major concern, nor are they exceptionally high now. "High taxes based on what?" he said. "My tax rates are lower than Hardyston and West Milford's taxes are a third higher than ours. Comparatively speaking, are our taxes that high? Does that make Vernon less affordable? Not necessarily." His concern is that once all the construction planned for the town center and Intrawest is completed, the increased paved areas and reduced open ground will increase runoff into the Black Creek watershed. "It will affect endangered and threatened species in the Black Creek Marshes," he said. Among the threatened species, he said, are the least bittern, the American bittern and the king rail - all species of birds. "You're going to have all that runoff," he said. "It's going to go somewhere. They can't capture all of it before it goes to Black Creek. It will cause nutrient loading in the wetlands. That changes the ecology of the water resources to the degree it could impact threatened and endangered species." Miranda said none of this is certain. "It hasn't been studied." But, he said. "It can't be claimed it won't happen. It can't be claimed it will happen." He favors finding out, first. The opponents say the town is rushing the project and are pressuring the state to move it forward. The officials say the plan has been in the works for several years, and only now are objections being heard. "It's frustrating that people sometimes come in at the end of the game after you've been working on it for many, many years and for political reasons oppose something and don't tell the truth about it," said Weiner. "It upsets me when they say it's going to pollute your wells or dry your wells up. That's totally political. Present scientific evidence and let's debate that." Miranda and Fuehrer say they have the scientific evidence, but the town - and, if it approves the plan, the state as well - are ignoring it.