Proposed changes to New Jersey water rules prompt flood of criticism

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 Environmentalists and some N.J. lawmakers oppose rule changes proposed by the Department of Environmental Protection that would make it easier to build in flood-prone areas. (NewsWorks file photo)

Environmentalists and some N.J. lawmakers oppose rule changes proposed by the Department of Environmental Protection that would make it easier to build in flood-prone areas. (NewsWorks file photo)

Residents and developers can build on flood-prone land in New Jersey, but it requires going through a rigorous permitting process first. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, that process is too tough and needs to be relaxed.

That is one of several rule changes proposed by the DEP earlier this year that has led to a torrent of criticism from environmentalists and some lawmakers.

“Why would anybody in their right mind want to make it easier to build in flood-prone areas or to strip away forest and stream buffers?” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

The flood-zone rules date back to 1980, when the state adopted the New Jersey Flood Hazard Control Act. The law laid out provisions for flood-zone development in an attempt to reduce additional flooding or pollution caused by manmade structures.

“What these new rules do is basically repeal almost all of those protections,” said Tittel.

Some of the DEP’s proposed rule changes include streamlining the permitting process for flood-zone development, speeding up the permit review process, and consolidating rules that govern similar aspects of the environment.

Contrary to what opponents claim, that can all be done without weakening flood- and riparian-zone protections, according to the DEP.

“The criticisms are so off-base that we wonder if the critics are actually reading the [proposed] rules,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hanja.

Hanja rejects the notion that easing the permitting process will “unleash development,” adding that a more efficient permitting process will most help the average New Jerseyan who wants to build on her own flood-prone property.

“By streamlining things down a little bit, we’re recognizing that property owners are people and need to be treated like people,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re not stepping back from the protection of the environment.”

Legislators in Trenton are not convinced.

Last month, the state Senate voted to block the proposed rule changes. This week, a state Assembly committee followed suit.

If the full Assembly votes against the DEP’s proposal, the agency will have to amend its proposed rule changes or withdraw them, or the Legislature has threatened to invalidate the new rules outright, an outcome critics are hoping for.

“[These rules] are critical for protecting us from the damage that gets done by pollution, from the damage that gets done by flooding, by erosion and by the loss of critical habitats,” said Maya van Rossum, who runs the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“If anything,” she said, “New Jersey’s rules weren’t strong enough.”

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