2016 wins and losses for New Jersey’s land and water

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By Michele S. Byers

The year 2016 ended with a mixed environmental record for New Jersey. While there were a few true gains, there were many losses and some mixed outcomes.

Perhaps the best environmental news of the year was the final passage of state funding for preserving parks, natural areas, farmland and historic sites after two years of being mired in dispute.

In November 2014, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment permanently dedicating a portion of New Jersey’s corporate business tax revenues to fund open space, farmland and historic preservation, but the funds needed to be allocated by the Legislature.

This June, after two vetoes by Gov. Christie Christie, a compromise was finally reached on the allocation of funds. In December, the Garden State Preservation Trust approved the first round of funding, making $67 million available. The first land preservation projects under the new funding mechanism are expected to be announced in 2017.

Another win in 2016 was the Legislature’s recent passage of a ballot question to create a “lockbox” to ensure money received by the state in compensation for environmental damages cannot be diverted for other purposes.

The legislation was prompted by cases like the Christie administration’s $225 million pollution settlement with ExxonMobil, of which only $50 million will be spent on the cleanup of the Passaic River. The rest went into the state’s general fund.

Voters will have the opportunity next November to vote for a constitutional amendment to ensure that future natural resources damages settlements are used only for environmental restorations.

In another piece of good news, protection of the Delaware River watershed was strengthened in December when President Barack Obama signed legislation to coordinate public and private efforts to protect water quality, improve flood control, manage fish stocks and enhance public access.

The Delaware River basin – which supplies drinking water to 15 million people – stretches from upstate New York to the Delaware Bay, encompassing New Jersey’s entire western border.

Also on the plus side, the state appears to have abandoned an unpopular plan to commercialize Liberty State Park, which historically has been free and non-commercial, similar to New York City’s Central Park. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was criticized for its 2015 proposal to bring in commercial vendors who would pay fees to the state in exchange for running their businesses in park facilities.

In the “bad news” category, the DEP proposed to increase the septic system density standard in the Highlands, endangering water quality. The proposed changes would permit more new residential subdivisions in the “preservation area,” the largely forested and most environmentally sensitive part of the Highlands. The state Assembly recently passed a resolution deeming the proposed rule “inconsistent with legislative intent.”

The Highlands proposal wasn’t the only DEP rules change to come under fire. Changes weakening New Jersey’s flood hazard and storm water management rules were adopted this past June.

Legislation extending development permits in New Jersey counties affected by superstorm Sandy was another hit to the environment. Although the legislation ostensibly helps post-Sandy recovery efforts, allowing development proposals in flood-prone areas to operate under outdated approvals is unwise. Rebuilding in these areas should be subject to the current standards and should reflect the best available information so that communities and natural resources are protected.

In other bad news, the DEP approved a “diversion” to allow Seaside Heights to sell 1.37 acres of prime public beachfront to a developer for the expansion of an amusement pier. In exchange, the town would get an historic carousel, a small oceanside parking lot and some largely inaccessible wetlands in a neighboring town. New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the American Littoral Society have appealed the diversion and the matter is now in litigation.

For the last few years, the onslaught of pipeline proposals in New Jersey has fallen firmly in the “bad environmental news” category, as the pipelines would fragment forests, threaten waterways and segment preserved farms. What’s more, they are being proposed without comprehensive planning that takes into account cumulative impacts, alternative approaches and public need.

Good news, if any can be found about pipelines, includes opposition to the PennEast pipeline project in Hunterdon and Mercer counties from the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel; and an appeals court decision ruling that the full Pinelands Commission – not just the executive director – must vote on the South Jersey Gas pipeline in the Pine Barrens.

Bad news came from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s issuance of a draft Environmental Impact Statement that assumed that the PennEast pipeline would not have significant environmental impacts, contrary to the serious concerns raised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DEP and other agencies.

In more bad news, although Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, agreed to hold off on clear-cutting more than 60 acres of the Pine Barrens forest while litigation over a solar energy proposal is proceeding, Six Flags has not agreed to place the solar panels on the parking area where they would do the least environmental damage. The theme park wants to power its operation with solar energy, but its proposal to remove forest and rare species habitat negates any positive environmental benefit.

And New Jersey continues to face challenges in protecting natural resources on our public lands, as evidenced by the tremendous damage to precious Pine Barrens habitats from illegal off-road vehicle riding that occurred this year.

What will 2017 bring?

With President-elect Donald Trump in the White House, federal environmental programs and climate change initiatives are likely to be under a great deal of assault. But in New Jersey, we have lots of work to do and much to be excited about.

New Jersey will have a critical gubernatorial race in 2017 and the opportunity to elect a “green governor” who will be dedicated to protecting the state’s clean water, clean air, wildlife and forests … and all New Jersey citizens.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.