New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration on Monday announced regulatory changes for development in flood hazard areas that would streamline permitting and reduce restrictions on construction near surface waters, among other revisions that some environmentalists argue would harm waterways and flood prevention efforts.
Officials with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said the “common sense” changes to its rules under the Flood Hazard Area Control Act are part of the administration’s broader efforts to cut red tape and denied that they represent a rollback in ecological or flood mitigation protections. The DEP will field public comments on the proposed revisions, which were part of the state Register on Monday and separately announced by the department, through July 31.
“Our streams and rivers provide the state with many benefits, but many aspects of the way the rules are currently structured have not achieved their stated goals,” DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement. “These rule changes will correct those problems while maintaining our high standards for protection of our waterways and mitigation of flooding.”
The amendments addressed in a 936-page notice from the DEP include converting six existing general permits to a new category of permits — general permits-by-certification — and another four existing general permits to permits-by-rule.
The new category of permits would allow someone to use an online portal and secure permission for 15 specific activities by making a series of certifications, according to Vincent Mazzei, a supervising environmental engineer with the DEP. The regulator would follow up with an inspection later, Mazzei said. Meanwhile, permits-by-rule cover smaller activities that are automatically entitled to a permit, according to Mazzei.
Requirements for so-called riparian zones — where regulated waters meet land — would also see changes.
The DEP said it wants to increase the total amount of vegetation that can be disturbed for roadways, utility lines, buildings and other projects to better reflect the department’s permitting experiences. The department also wants to increase the area of riparian zone vegetation that can be disturbed as part of activities that don’t harm their overall functionality, including work within roadway or utility easements.
Additionally, the proposal would free more applicants from having to request hardship exceptions when strict compliance with riparian zone limits would create an undue hardship. Site remediation projects, landfill closures and other construction activities not addressed in the existing rules would see allowances for riparian zone disturbances, while applicants would no longer need a hardship exception if they can show that a project “cannot feasibly meet the limits on riparian zone disturbance.”
In those cases, an applicant would have to prove that there’s no practicable alternative and take steps to mitigate disturbances, according to Mazzei.
Also on the table is the repeal of 300-foot “special water resource protection areas” under the state’s stormwater management rules. Reconciling the requirements for those areas with separate 300-foot riparian zones that the flood hazard rules establish for ecologically significant waters and certain tributaries has created confusion for regulators and the regulated community alike, the department said. Moving forward, the DEP wants to create a hybrid buffer with uniform standards that apply to the same set of surface waters.
The department itself highlighted a proposal to hand off the enforcement of soil erosion and sediment control standards to local Soil Conservation Districts when it comes to areas with highly acidic soils. Those areas largely run parallel to the New Jersey Turnpike corridor in the central and southern parts of the state, according to the DEP.
The changes aren’t sitting well with some in the environmental community. The new permitting standards would slash important oversight, while certain protections for high quality streams would be eliminated, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
“In a state so devastated by flooding, the DEP is heading in the wrong direction,” Tittel said in a statement. “We should be adding protections to protect people and property, instead we are weakening them putting more people and protect in harm’s way. These rules are an attack on clean water and make NJ will be vulnerable to the next flood and future damages.”
The revised rules received a warmer reception from the New Jersey Builders Association, which welcomed changes such as the proposed consolidation of stormwater management and flood hazard rules.
“The proposal is another initiative by the department to organize, align, and standardize the underlying permitting rules for a significant and complex land use program,” the association said in a statement.