FLEMINGTON, NJ – Freeholders acted again this week to respond to a proposed state rule that would reclassify 749 miles of waterways and extend protections to the streams’ 300-foot buffers.

The waters flow through 67 municipalities, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has written the proposal.

If the rule is adopted as-is, “Basically, Raritan Township is out of business,” the township’s Mayor Jeff Kuhl told the Freeholders.

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John Kendzulak, who is the chairman of the township’s sewer utility, said the proposed protections make the utility’s ability to expand “impossible or financially unfeasible.”

“There does not seem to be much science or evidence behind the change,” Kuhl said. “Documents are very vague and it seems like this is being pushed through very quickly. Raritan Township and Flemington seem to be most affected.”

The change would limit the township’s ability to build state-mandated “affordable” housing and will pose a problem for homeowners with failing septic systems, he said.

“Without our sewer plant being able to handle extra capacity, what are these people going to do?” Kuhl asked. “Where will their clean water come from if the septic system has failed and they have a well on their property?”

Kuhl said that 20 percent of the township’s 1,900 properties would be affected by the rule and that residential property values would decrease. He estimated the change will trigger $900 million of tax appeals in the township that could result in an annual loss of $5 million of tax revenue.

“The rest of the town will have to absorb that somehow,” Kuhl said. “Everybody’s taxes are going to go up.” And Kuhl said that, “I’ve heard from businesses that they’re ready to ‘lawyer-up’ if this happens.”

Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver said supporting “future growth in Flemington Borough is exceptionally important.”

Driver said that as a designated Opportunity Zone, the borough has “been targeted for smart growth … we already have developers who are interested and are looking around town.” And while Flemington is pursuing upgrades to its sewer infrastructure, “We will not be able to afford to pay for those upgrades … without having more development in town to help pay for that,” she said.

Kuhl agreed. “We’d all like to see Flemington come back to be the town it once was, but it’s served by our sewer plant … it’s going to make it very difficult” for the plant to serve the borough under the new rule, he said.

Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach echoed those comments. Her town owns both a sewer utility and a water utility, and each provide service to surrounding municipalities.

“This could become cost prohibitive for us to be able to continue to provide sewer service,” she said. “It will also not allow us to expand.”

“Raritan Township is the hub of Hunterdon County and it will be most adversely affected by the new classification proposals by DEP,” said township Deputy Mayor Lou Reiner. The rule will result in “irreparable harm” to businesses and homeowners, he said.

Reiner called the DEP plan “in variance with the U.S. constitution.

“I cannot believe that we are going to get anywhere … keeping this in state courts, which effectively uphold” similar cases,” Reiner said. “I see this as a taking without compensation.”

Reiner said the DEP proposal reflects “abdication of legislative authority being delegated to unelected bureaucrats.”

And Reiner pointed his finger at Gov. Phil Murphy, calling the plan “retaliation, a streak of vindictiveness coming out of the Governor’s office against areas and districts that he did not win. If no one has the guts to say it, I will.”

Raritan Township resident Karl Lachenmacher said the plan will affect “existing homes in the buffer” and limit homeowners’ ability to build “additions, decks, patios, pools, wells … it will decrease the value of homes within the buffer zone.”

Lachenmacher said the DEP should “provide a specific list of those properties involved” and that “existing homes should be exempt from the DEP permits, or funding should be included – similar to the Highlands Act – to reimburse homeowners for their financial loss.

“This appears to be a thinly-veiled 50,000-acre land grab by the DEP,” he said.

Fellow township resident Barbara Sachau said she supports the stream reclassifications and 300-foot buffers.

“If we don’t have clean water, we don’t have health,” Sachau said, and businesses can’t be successful “if their employees are sick … If a place is kept clean and has healthy water, it is certainly a desirable place to live.”

Bill Kibler of Raritan Headwaters asked that although Raritan Township, Flemington and High Bridge have approved resolutions challenging the rule, Freeholders should also consider those communities who support it, such as Readington, Tewksbury and Califon, some of whom seek to add additional streams to the protected list. The extended protections “absolutely” do not bar new development or redevelopment, he said.

“I’ve heard a lot of good people here today say that they support clean water and I believe them,” Kibler said. “So here’s an opportunity to demonstrate that you believe in clean water. Let’s work together to find a way to redevelop our communities than ensures that we maintain clean water.” The proposed rule just requires “that we do not add additional pollution to the waterways,” he said.

The Freeholders voted to ask DEP to extend the comment period for the rule change an additional 30 days beyond June 4.

Freeholder John Lanza said the board’s “responsibility includes promoting both the environment and the economic vitality of this county.

“We need the time to get this right … it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition,” Lanza said.

Freeholder Director Suzanne Lagay said the county’s comments will be posted to the county website, “So that everybody can see what we’re asking for.”

Residents can submit their own comments directly to the DEP site.