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New Jersey Stream Buffers Cut Back by Senior Environmental Official

TRENTON, New Jersey, February 10, 2008 (ENS) – The commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has revoked her own order issued little more than a year ago protecting stream buffers. These strips of grass, shrubs, and trees beside streams provide cooling shade and act to remove pollutants in urban stormwater, reduce erosion and stabilize stream banks.

The effect of this sudden reversal in New Jersey policy makes it easier to cut the widths of stream buffers in half – from 300 feet to 150 feet – allowing development in the area surrounding the most sensitive streams, lakes and rivers, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

On January 24, Lisa Jackson, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, DEP, rescinded an Administrative Order that she issued on January 2, 2007.

The 2007 Order mandated that developers conduct a strict scientific demonstration using a specific technology to prove that any disturbance or reduction in the buffer widths along Category One streams resulted in equivalent protection before any construction would be allowed.

“[T]he Department shall not approve any encroachment [into a buffer] unless the applicant has demonstrated…that the functional value of the [buffer] will be maintained,” the 2007 order states.

The order was applauded by environmentalists but hated by developers, who wanted to build in the stream buffer areas.

In the January 24, 2008 Administrative Order rescinding the previous one, Jackson said the earlier guidance ” did not effectively account for activities that would enhance the overall functional value of the SWRPA [special water resource protected area].”

“Further, the Department recognized that there may be other scientifically valid functional value assessments that may be used to demonstrate that the functional value and overall condition of the SWRPA are being maintained.”

Her latest guidance document means that the current 300 foot buffer can be reduced to 150 feet without a prior demonstration that the natural values will be protected, says PEER.

Prior to the 2007 order, developers had been able to obtain “equivalence” findings from compliant local governments without any meaningful guarantee against net resource loss.

In fact, highly publicized cases where builders were allowed to destructively build inside the 300 foot buffers prompted Commissioner Jackson to issue the 2007 order she has now rescinded.

“Make no mistake, this is a major rollback of protections,” said New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is touting an addition of 900 miles of new Category One stream designations as a major environmental achievement.

“This effectively rolls back 300 foot buffers to 150 feet,” Wolfe said.

They DEP appears to be adopting the argument that conversion of buffer lands to housing reduces water pollution compared to farming – a position shared by the Builders Association, Wolfe says.

“The whole point of buffers is to keep construction out of the most critical part of the watershed,” he says. “By turning tail on this point, Commissioner Jackson has transformed stream buffers into builder speed bumps that will be easily run over.”

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