FLEMINGTON, NJ – Property values would drop “significantly.” Areas targeted for development and redevelopment would stagnate. There would be no opportunity in Flemington’s “Opportunity Zone.”

That’s what county Freeholders were told yesterday about a rule change proposed by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“It makes your jaw drop,” said Freeholder Director Suzanne Lagay. “I don’t know what else to say.”

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The concern regards a DEP plan to reclassify 749 miles of rivers and streams primarily located in the northwestern part of the state to so-called “C-1” status. That would require that any development provide a 300-foot buffer to the streams and “discharge must be maintained at existing levels,” David Glass told the board.

Glass is a former DEP Deputy Commissioner. Now he’s  with CLB Partners, a Trenton-based lobbying firm.

The change is alarming to Hunterdon’s Director of Economic Development Marc Saluk, who admitted to the board yesterday that his concern is an “impassioned plea.”

The change would reclassify the South Branch Raritan River “and all of its tributaries” to C-1 status, Saluk said. Experts from the Raritan Township Municipal Utilities Authority – the operators of the township’s wastewater treatment plant – and county experts told him that  the “surface water quality standard modifications would likely have a very significant negative impact to local economic development and to the future vitality of Hunterdon.”

The effects would be felt throughout Hunterdon, Saluk said, but would mainly impact Raritan Township because, “RTMUA will not be able to provide additional capacity to new or expanding businesses.”

Saluk said the plan puts at risk at least the 520 new and retained jobs of which he’s aware.

“We must have these jobs and others in the pipeline,” Saluk said.

Glass said the rule was introduced on March 4 and that the comment period on the plan ends June 3.  

A similar proposal  by DEP in 2008 proposed reclassifying 909 miles of rivers and streams, Glass said, adding that eventually 227 miles were removed from that plan “based on additional data and comments provided by the public.”

Glass complained of the state’s “lack of transparency” in the current plan. “DEP did not make available all of their data supporting the reclassification,” he said. The agency “did not provide  clear maps” and the maps that were provided were not available in GIS format.

“They have that technology,” Glass said. “I used to manage that department.”

“The question is ‘Can we stop this rule?’,” Glass asked. “The answer is, in my opinion, ‘No, you’re not going to stop it in its entirety.’ ” But he said the matter, “warrants meeting with DEP leadership, maybe the Commissioner.”

“It’s not a matter of being a conservationist or supporting clean water,” he said.

Saluk said DEP data shows that in addition to the township, the Clintons, High Bridge, and the townships of Delaware, East Amwell, High Bridge, Lebanon, Readington and Tewksbury would be impacted by the change.

“And pretty strongly, probably Flemington,” he said, because Flemington relies on RTMUA for its wastewater treatment.

Margaret Carmeli is an attorney with Tyler & Carmeli, the law firm that represents the Utility Authority.

“RTMUA is in the business of clean wastewater,” she said. “So we know about clean water, and that’s our business.” Agreeing with Glass, she said, “This isn’t really about whether we want clean water.”

Carmeli said the last similar proposed rule change allowed two years for public, municipalities, and property owners to comment “and understand what is going on,” unlike the short deadline with this plan.

Carmeli said that the plan, “Most likely makes it technically impossible to expand the discharge” from the RTMUA plant. And even if a way could be found to expand its treatment capacity, it would “probably be unfeasible” economically, she said.

Part of the problem is that portions of the RTMUA facility are already within the buffer itself.

John Tully, an RTMUA commissioner and Raritan Township's senior engineering assistant, introduced what he called his “map of doom.” He said it is a “probably conservative” rendering of the potential impact of the change to water quality standards.

Of the 9,621 individual properties in the township, the map shows 1,970 would be affected by the change, Tully said.

If enacted, the rule would put Flemington’s wet weather discharge facility out of business. That facility, which is located behind Hunterdon Central High School, processes borough wastewater when heavy rain allows stormwater into the borough’s system.

It would be expensive to pump that water to RTMUA, said Carmeli, citing  estimates made years ago that put the price at $30 million.

But that “would require an expansion of the plant,” she said, “which now we couldn’t do” under the revised rules.

“Basically, Raritan Township and Flemington would be closed to development,” Tully said. “That’s the net result ... I’m worried about my job where in three or four years everything is built out.”

The rule would require that property owners who want to to build a deck or home addtion would need a DEP permit if it were in the buffer zone. County engineer Tom Mathews said it wouldn't impact county roads and bridges, because the county already observes a 300-foot buffer.

In response to the news, the Freeholders awarded a $15,000 contract to Alaimo Group of Mount Holly “for consulting services to advise on NJDEP Surface Water Quality Standards”