Disagreement Over Highlands Development Plan

By Brenda Flanagan

“I brew coffee every day,” said Vera Barbosa.

And the water Barbosa uses to brew a new pot at T.M. Ward Coffee in Newark starts out in the pristine Highlands of northern New Jersey. She worries that a DEP proposal to change regulations and allow more houses with septic systems to be built around here might affect her water and coffee quality here.

“They better think about that really hard, yeah, before they do anything stupid,” she said.

“This is the water source for really 70 percent of New Jersey’s population,” said Elliott Ruga with the Highlands Coalition.

We’re at Split Rock Reservoir — one of several water sources in the 415,000-acre Highlands Preservation area.

“This is a hugely improbable asset we have in the most densely populated state in the more densely populated northern half. Don’t screw it up,” Ruga said.

The new rules proposal DEP unveiled in April would permit an additional 1,145 septic systems — that’s about 12 percent more than under existing regulations, officials say.

“We believe that these rules are absolutely in line with the intent of the Legislature, and we feel these rules will not result in any additional degradation to the Highlands area or its water,” said NJDEP Director of Economic Analysis Ben Witherell.

Within 150 feet of Split Rock, seven more septic tanks could be built on these newly-developable lots, Ruga says.

“Putting more human waste in Newark and Jersey City’s water supply, which really is what this rule proposal is about,” Ruga said.

“And I think it’s a slippery slope, where this stuff starts and where it ends. Once you open the opportunity for development there, it’s only going to escalate over the next couple of years,” said Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop. “There’s no urgency to change it and the hope is that they take a different approach.”

It’s prime property. By restricting development to one house per 88 forested acres, critics claim the Highlands Preservation Act deprived land owners here of billions in fair market value. They sued more than once, but New Jersey’s Supreme Court upheld the law. New Jersey builders support the DEP’s proposed rule changes, because “…current Septic Density Standards inhibit economic growth, which in turn frustrated the ‘balance’ that the Highlands Act was to strike with environmental protection.” The DEP says new data by the U.S. Geological Survey show minimal impact on nitrate pollution levels, with the slightly greater development density.

“That is essentially about one unit per 362 acres in the Preservation Area. The level of protection is not changing, based on this proposed rule. We do estimate that there will be a small amount of additional development potential, based on the changed standard. But that standard again is based on new information, new ground water result we have in that area,” Witherell said.

“New septic tanks would not be allowed to degrade groundwater quality beyond the current average background in the Highlands,” said New Jersey State Geologist Jeffrey Hoffman.

The DEP believes these rules restore some fairness to the equation and discounts predictions of more human waste flowing downstream to city water supplies. Newark officials are convinced it’s just a matter of time.

“It definitely will be tainted. We’ll definitely probably have to increase treatment. We definitely probably incur additional costs. And why take that risk?” said Andrea Hall Adebowale, director of Newark Department of Water and Sewer Utilities.

The deadline for public comment on this issue is tomorrow. The DEP’s expected to adopt these new regulations. The Legislature’s considering a measure to block them. But ultimately, this could end up in court.