September 10, 2008
Environmentalists Cry Foul Over Permit Extension Act
By SCOTT FALLON, STAFF WRITER
Governor Corzine quietly signed a controversial law extending the life of construction permits in New Jersey a law business leaders say is needed during tough economic times, but environmentalists say undermines pollution laws.
The Permit Extension Act is intended to help developers whose projects have been slowed or halted because of the economic downturn.
At issue is whether the law will allow builders to skirt updates to federal environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act, that are approved after a permit is issued.
Supporters said that none of the extensions would be affected by changes in federal regulations.
But in June, a top Environmental Protection Agency official asked New Jersey leaders not to pass the act. Alan Steinberg, an EPA regional administrator, said in a letter to state officials that the law would "override aspects of a number of state laws and regulations, some of which are elements of federally approved state environmental programs."
Steinberg warned that the law could also "interfere" with the awarding of grant money from the agency to the state.
EPA officials would not comment on the act Tuesday other than to say they will discuss its significance with the state Department of Environmental Protection. DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura, meanwhile, said the act would not affect federally funded projects.
Corzine signed the law on Saturday, along with seven other bills.
"The governor believes this bill will help spur economic growth in New Jersey," Corzine said in a statement. "During tough economic times, it is important to encourage development projects to move forward, not prolong them by making businesses reapply for permits already vetted."
Business leaders say the measure would not make it easier for builders to get building approval. Rather, it will allow already- approved projects to go ahead once the economy turns around and credit and property buyers are more plentiful, they say.
The length of an extension would depend on the type of permit issued. The act would allow the extension of building approvals granted after Jan. 1, 2006. Some may last until two years after the economic slowdown ends which the bill puts at Dec. 31, 2012.
A similar law was enacted in the early 1990s following a recession at the turn of that decade.
Several environmental groups had urged Corzine to veto parts of the act. They said the act would allow builders to circumvent pending green laws such as the state's Global Warming Response Act, which would include more stringent energy efficiency standards.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the law "one of the worst environmental bills ever passed by New Jersey legislators and one of the biggest giveaways to developers in the state's history."
David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said his organization will file a lawsuit to block the act. He said the act violates due process by bringing expired building permits back to life without going through a planning or zoning board.
"We'll be seeing the governor in court," he said. "This bill undermines core environmental and public health protections, good planning and the Constitution."
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