Trenton, NJ: via Sierra Club of NJ. A bill to extend the expiration date of certain permits for one year in Superstorm Sandy-impacted counties was released out of the Senate Budget Committee yesterday. The legislation called A3617 (Green)/S2390 (Sarlo) would allow development permits to move forward, many in areas that flood or have become vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges.  Instead of writing new laws to protect people and property better or strengthening our existing laws to protect our communities from sea level rise and flooding, this will do the opposite.

“This is a zombie bill that keeps coming back to life. What’s one of the worst bills in the history of the legislature is now being proposed for the fifth time. This bill will allow another one-year extension for developers to build in areas of the state that were most damaged and impacted from Hurricane Sandy. It also has a Dracula Clause that will grandfather projects for at least 18 years for the DEP and 19 years for local approvals dating as far back as 1997 before anyone even heard of Monica Lewinski. Many of these areas were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy and do not even consider increased storm surges and future climate change impacts. This will clearly put more people and property in harm’s way. These projects would also be exempted from updated building codes and have environmental regulations waived,” said Jeff Tittel, Director, New Jersey Sierra Club. “This proposal is even more ludicrous when you think about where the Sandy victims are. They want to give out these permits to areas that weren’t even flooded. For example, the Iron Bound got flooded but we’re going to grandfather permits in Shore Hills too, which didn’t get flooded.”

There is even an exemption in the Act for inland Flood Hazard Areas, however the maps have not been updated in 30 years for regulatory purposes in the land use programs.  It will extend development in flood-prone V zones along the coast or designed in a way that does not include elevation or other up to date building codes.

“Not only has the Christie Administration not done enough to protect us from sea level rise and the frequency of severe storms, these projects will even consider flood prone areas. They will allow building in the most flood-prone V zones and not even use old outdated FEMA flood maps. This legislation is like an ostrich burying its head in the sand with giant wave coming over it. That wave is called climate change and sea level rise,” said Jeff Tittel.

Instead of protecting our coast after Superstorm Sandy, this extension will grandfather projects in areas that flood regularly. The counties impacted from the bill would include Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, and Union.  If passed, these projects would not have been built to current standards including new building codes, LEED certified projects, or consideration of NJDEP rules. Not only are some of these projects dangerous and are in flood prone areas, but developing in these areas could actually cause the cancellation of flood insurance in some areas since they would be violating both FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program regulations. It will also avoid important environmental regulations including Pollution Discharge Rules, Flood Hazard Rules, Site Remediation Rules, Category 1 Rules, Highlands Act, and others by preventing their appropriate implementation, violating the laws that brought these rules into existence.

“This legislation will side with developers over protecting New Jersey’s environment by allowing development in flood prone and vulnerable areas. Many of these projects were actually approved before Hurricane Sandy in the areas most vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surges, and flooding. Not does this undermine environmental protection and good planning, but it actually will put more people and property into harm’s way. We should be avoiding building in areas subject to climate change, environmentally sensitive areas of the Highlands and Pinelands, important wetlands, and statewide Planning Area 5. Instead this bill is making us more vulnerable to future damage from sea level rise and severe storms,” said Jeff Tittel.  “Some of these projects were even proposed before new building codes, LEED standards, or projections on climate change were in place; making them less efficient and even dangerous.”

Many of these areas are environmentally sensitive and critical to water supply. Areas around the Spruce Run, Round Valley, Boonton, and Wanaque reservoirs are being targeted as well as important endangered species habitat in Sussex and Warren Counties that include trout streams and scenic mountains.

“The permit extension will cause more sprawl and overdevelopment in areas that are critical to our water supply. Some of these bad projects will threaten parts of the Highlands, the Pinelands, and add more pollution to our streams and reservoirs that contain our clean drinking water. If this bill is passed, the Highlands Council, Pinelands Commission and DEP must make sure these projects are not built,” said Tittel.

The bill also includes a “Dracula Clause” that allows projects where permits or approvals have expired within the past two years to be brought back to life, even if those projects would cause environmental harm or damage to public health.

“The Dracula Clause would have allowed these projects to be brought back to life. This will mean that permits expired in January now come back to life in June. The clause will actually grandfather hundreds of thousands of permits with complete disregard to environmental impacts or looking at how they promote sprawl and flooding and damage clean water,” said Jeff Tittel. “Many of the rollbacks in the DEP to allow more development in environmentally sensitive areas may have even been proposed before these permits. These permits could avoid rules like Discharge Rules, Site Remediation Rules, Category 1 Rules, and Highlands Act, but some permit proposals may even have stricter regulations before DEP rolled back its rules. That means developers could need to use regulations based on old Flood Hazard, CAFRA, and Water Quality Management Planning Rules than projects that are better than the ones currently being proposed.”

By allowing the extension, this will grandfather projects that cause environmental damage and sprawl that there is no market for a people do not want.  The market has changed since these permits were first approved and people in New Jersey want to live in walkable communities in urban areas.  Most of the development happening in New Jersey is in places like Jersey City, Montclair, and Red Bank, not McMansions in farm field.

“People have rejected the rural areas and suburbs and want to live in places with down-town areas whether it is Red Bank, Princeton, Maplewood or Jersey City.  This law would go against the type of development projects people want,” said Jeff Tittel. “Many of these plans were proposed before the market crashed. If these were good projects they would have been built already. These are the wrong projects in the wrong places. All this legislation does was sell out environmental protections for developers and land speculators.”

This legislation also interferes with urban revitalization and will prevent growth in areas that are growing and we actually want growth in.  In Newark there are approvals for 2 family homes in areas that are now zoned for mixed use and mid-rise development.  In Jersey City, there are proposals for high rise developments in areas with approvals for strip malls.  There are approvals out there for office parks when the office park market is glutted.  Instead of moving with the times, by extending these permits we would actually be preventing jobs, housing, and economic growth.

“This bill would be a complete giveaway to developers at the expense of clean water and the environment. Instead of trying to build good projects in the right areas, this will put bad projects in environmentally sensitive areas, including parts of the Highlands and Pinelands. We must put an end to these projects and stop this bill that puts New Jersey at risk,” said Jeff TittelDirector of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The last time they got a permit extension, they were told it was the last one and now they are back again. This is just like a monster from a Sci-Fi movie that wants to gobble up our land and open spaces.”