FLEMINGTON, NJ – The regular meetings of the Hunterdon Freeholder board are usually brief, quiet affairs. The public rarely attends. Freeholder discussion typically involves recognizing new Eagle Scouts, discussing Parks programs or updates on bridge repairs.
But Monday’s Freeholder meeting was filled with opponents of the Freeholders’ April 16 decision to resist a proposed state rule that would expand stream protections. That’s when the Freeholders approved spending $15,000 so that a lobbyist can represent them at the state Department of Environmental Protection and resist the DEP plan.
Freeholder Director Suzanne Lagay told the crowd on Monday that the Freeholder board has since been advised by its attorney that, “We should not be making comment” on its plan “while we’re gathering more information.”
“There is so much missing in what we know so far,” she said.
But that didn’t stop county Economic Development Director Marc Saluk from telling the board that, “The alarm of the county … is warranted.” Saluk called it an “obligation to the towns we represent and to the citizens that have embraced economic development … to understand the impact of these regulations … Not doing so would be irresponsible.”
“It is already extremely difficult to accommodate projects in Hunterdon,” Saluk said. "More than nine out of every 10 potential projects that this office has known about over the past three years failed to get traction due to land infrastructure limitations or state regulations.
" 'Nine out of 10' flows off the tongue easily," Saluk said. "But I easily could have said 49 out of 50 ... These things are necessary to secure the future of the community.”
But Musconetcong Watershed Association Vice-President Cinny MacGonagle told the Freeholders that it would be a “great mistake to not protect our streams.”
She called it “a canard to say we can’t have development and stream protection … there are plenty of opportunities for redevelopment without harming our streams.”
Saluk said the proposed “surface water quality standards modifications could significantly limit the ability of many of our communities to pursue economic growth, or even maintain the current level of economic opportunity.”
The expanded water protection rule could impact “many long-standing responsible corporate citizens that have been delivering returns to the Hunterdon community for many years,” he said, “which means more taxes to locals” and potential job loss “which means less opportunity for our students.”
If the rule is enacted, it could affect “Hunterdon’s comprehensive public-private economic development effort and its wide array of partners,” Saluk said.
That seems to conflict with what N.J. Highland Coalition Policy Director Elliot Rugga said Saluk told his group at a March 30 conference.
The Coalition represents 100 organizations “and their common interest” to protect water quality, Rugga said. At the conference, he said Saluk spoke on “compatible, sustainable economic development.”
“The cornerstone of his talk was that economic development could be achieved without an additional brick being laid in Hunterdon,” Rugga said. He said the proposed rule would maintain, and not improve, water quality, and that, “if you oppose these upgrades, you’re promoting degradation of the water supply.”
Sergeantsville resident Leslie Sauer told the Freeholders, “The arguments about … protecting the environment will cost us jobs, has always been an argument.
“Your own Master Plan makes it very clear that municipalities have very limited ability to protect their water resources,” Sauer said. “I don’t think any of you ran on a platform saying, ‘We will oppose … opportunities to protect our communties’ water resources.”
“I think it’s more important to protect the environment, and the long-term preservation of the environment, than development,” said Lois Voronin of Kingwood.
Raritan Township resident Barbara Sachau also supports the DEP rule. “I don’t think economic development should override protection for citizens,” she said.
Alan Hunt, a Bethlehem resident who is Executive Director of Musconetcong Watershed Association, also supports the rule, adding that rivers are “an important economic and recreational resource.”
Hunt said water protection rules needn’t limit development. He cited the Hawk Pointe community on Route 31 in Washington Township (Warren County), which is part of the Hackettstown Municipal Utilities Authority. Its expanded stream protections haven’t stopped the development from “continuing to expand, including over 420 units, of over 80,000 square feet of mixed-use development,” he said.
“They’re using their own groundwater discharge wastewater treatment facility,” Hunt said. “Clean water means economic return.”
“Listen to us now,” Susan Meacham of Holland Township told the Board.
“Support the strictest water protections possible,” Meacham said. “We have pipeline companies and corporate developers actively trying to ruin this county for corporate profit and if they are the ones complaining that these stricter water standards would thwart their plan, that should tell you we need to fight harder to keep our waterways safe, not open the door for development that will harm our state’s environment.
“Just because a few municipalities want relaxed water standards does not mean that all municipalities in this county have to suffer from that lack of foresight,” she said. “Corporate lobbyists appear to be pushing a pro-business agenda as a financial fix to our high taxes, but many financial experts dispute the notion that this ‘ratables chase’ is the panacea to municipal budget problems.”
Meacham said that those who live in Hunterdon value its “rural identity” and history.
“If you don’t believe me, look at the fierce opposition that was mounted to these cookie-cutter redevelopment plans” for Flemington’s Union Hotel and its surrounding properties. She said that failing to protect water is “financially short-sighted, and morally wrong.”
David Rosenblum owns a small farm and about 15 acres in Pittstown. He said he supports the expanded protections and, “I have put my money where my mouth is.”
Zoning in his neighborhood has increased the minimum lot size from 3.5 acres to 7 acres “because we are very close to wetlands,” he said. “I have taken a real financial loss … if I ever do decide to sell.”
Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver said her Borough Council sent a “narrowly-construed letter” to DEP opposing reclassification of the South Branch of the Raritan River near the Raritan Township Municipal Utilities Authority outflow, of which the Borough accounts for 28 percent.
Recently identified as an economic Opportunity Zone, Driver said developers are looking at both ends of Flemington “with some really exciting development” that Borough officials will insist be “environmentally sustainable.”
The development will be subject to “stormwater runoff standards that we intend to put in place,” the Mayor said.
If enacted, the rule wouldn’t affect the Union Hotel project, Driver said, because Jack Cust’s Courthouse Square plan – which includes the hotel– has already been approved. Instead, it would impact “vacant, blighted properties” that are being considered for redevelopment.
She called it, “exciting, incremental development that is small and that will fit” and that would be “smart growth” for the Borough.
“We need that growth in order to pay to clean our water that leaves Flemington,” destined for the RTMUA, she said. “Without that growth, we can’t improve this town at all.”
At the previous Freeholder meeting, county lobbyist David Glass complained of the state’s “lack of transparency.” But on Monday, he said, “Everything is on the website” of the DEP regarding the planned rule change.
The Freeholders are considering approving a resolution regarding the DEP rule at its May 21 meeting, but they haven’t publicly discussed what that might include. The DEP comment period for the proposed rule has been extended through June 4 and comments can be submitted online.