Ready to fight fast-track

By: Joseph Harvie, Staff Writer    

South Brunswick Post, 04/28/2005

Opponents say smart growth law will encourage development.

Local legislators and environmentalists said they will not back down in their fight to repeal New Jersey's fast-track smart growth law.

The panel discussion, held April 21 at the South Brunswick High School cafeteria, included: South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese; Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-14; Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-14; No 92 activist Steve Masticola; New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel; and David Pringle, the campaign director of the N.J. Environmental Federation.

The group said the law gives developers more power when seeking permits to fill wetlands, build chemical plants and extend sewer lines where there currently are none. They also said the fast-track law would allow permits for long standing projects such as Route 92 to be issued more easily, and would lead to increased development throughout the state.

Route 92 is a proposed 6.7-mile limited access toll road that would run from the N.J. Turnpike from Exit 8A to Route 1 at Ridge Road.

The fast-track law targets smart growth corridors along Routes 1 and 27, Interstates 195 and 295, and the N.J. Turnpike. It streamlines certain permitting in the smart growth areas, requires the state to decide on environmental and building permits within 45 days of application and establishes the position of Smart Growth ombudsman.

The ombudsman would have the power to oversee the permit process. acting Gov. Richard Cody recently named Old Bridge Township Councilman Patrick Gillespie, former deputy director of the Senate Democrats Office, to the position.

The law also creates a position to be filled by judge who would hear complaints associated with permit applications. The judge, who does not have to be a lawyer or involved in planning or zoning at any levels, also will have the power to grant permits to developers if the application process takes more than 45 days. The judge also can overturn permit denials and would be appointed by the governor.

There is currently a proposal that would repeal the fast-track law, sponsored by 44 assembly members including Mr. Baroni and Ms. Greenstein, a Republican and Democrat whose district includes South Brunswick. An identical bill is in the state Senate has 14 co-sponsors. Sen. Peter Inverso, a Republican whose district includes South Brunswick, did not sponsor the bill.

The bill has been in limbo waiting for more signatures and for the speakers of both the assembly and the senate to place it on an agenda for debate.

The panel was also there to garner support for the Save New Jersey Coalition, a group of over 50 activist, political and community groups opposed to the fast-track law. Some of the members of the coalition are the Clean Water Fund, NJ Conservation Foundation, the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The fast-track law, which took three days to pass both the state Assembly and the Senate in June 2004, had a moratorium until the end of this month. Mr. Pringle said when the moratorium is lifted the state departments of Environmental Protection, Transportation and Community Affairs will have until July to establish rules for issuing environmental and building permits for projects in the smart growth areas.

He said if the rules are not established by the end of July, the judge would be able to issue permits for projects.

This means developers would be able to come to local government and apply for projects and basically say they already have state approval, Mr. Tittel said. Mr. Tittel and Mr. Pringle are hoping that the law is repealed by July.

Mr. Tittle also said there is a problem with setting a 45-day deadline to the permit process.

"The DEP loses everything," Mr. Tittel said. "A permit application has 45 days to be deemed complete, if it isn't complete, it is considered so anyway."

Mr. Tittel said if the DEP wants to challenge permits granted after the deadline, it would have to supply proof of why they should not be granted, rather than having the applicant do so.

Mr. Baroni said state agencies should take their time when looking at environmental permit applications, such as those needed to fill wetlands.

"They say they want the permits to be issued faster," Mr. Baroni said. "I want them to take their time before environmental permits are issued."

Fast-track also has opponents of Route 92 worried.

Mr. Masticola said since the proposed Route 92 is in a smart growth area, permits for the road could be issued in only 45 days, making the project easier for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to get off the ground.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority applied in December for new permits to build the road.

"Fast-track for Route 92 will be 'fast wreck' for South Brunswick," Mr. Masticola said. "It puts the power to push Route 92 and similar projects into the hands of un-elected, unaccountable, politically appointed bureaucrats."

Mr. Masticola said a majority of South Brunswick residents remain opposed to Route 92 and would favor open space over easy construction.

"The citizens of New Jersey have voted time and time again to open their wallets to preserve open space and have voted for politicians that would stand up for open space and against Route 92," Mr. Masticola said.

Ms. Greenstein said she hopes to see more state politicians work toward repealing the law. She also said she would like to see debate on the issue take place sooner rather than later.

Mr. Tittel said if citizens can have their voices heard, it could prevent New Jersey from becoming even more crowded.

"New Jersey is so densely populated, it is more densely populated than China, Japan and India," Mr. Tittel said. "The only thing more dense is the politicians that support this bill and pushed it through."

Mr. Tittel said repealing the law would allow for real smart growth legislation to be passed.

"The bill is to smart growth what Ben and Jerry's is to dieting," Mr. Tittel said.