Trenton — The top environmental officer in New Jersey has revoked her own order issued little more than a year ago protecting stream buffers. The effect of this sudden reversal makes it easier to cut 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On January 24, 2008, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner (DEP) Lisa Jackson rescinded an Administrative Order that she issued on January 2, 2007. That 2007 Order mandated that developers conduct a strict scientific demonstration 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”.
Her 2007 Order was praised by environmentalists but loathed by developers.
Her 2008 guidance document guts that demonstration and means that the current 300 foot buffer can be reduced to 150 feet without a rigorous prior showing that the important natural values will be protected.
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to destructively build inside the 300 foot buffers prompted Commissioner Jackson to issue the 2007 Order she has now rescinded.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,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that DEP 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.”
Ironically, on January 30, 2008, less than one week after her retreat on stream buffers, Jackson offered a $2,500 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the person who cut down a tree with a bald eagle’s nest in Cumberland County. Bald eagles nest along the shores of inland lakes and rivers – the very riparian areas now placed in jeopardy by Jackson’s stream buffer turn-around.
“Tens of thousands of trees that are potential eagle nesting sites could be lost by Commissioner Jackson’s hypocritical u-turn,” Wolfe added. “The DEP would rather look at one tree than see the entire forest.”
Significantly, DEP appears to be adopting the argument that conversion of buffer lands to housing reduces water pollution, compared to farming – a position not surprisingly shared by the Builders Association. This stance provides a somewhat questionable rationale for buffer penetration.
“The whole point of buffers is to keep construction out of the most critical part of the watershed,” Wolfe countered. “By turning tail on this point, Commissioner Jackson has transformed stream buffers into builder speed bumps that will be easily run over.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability