Whether it has been leading the fight to clean up a “superfund” site, preserve an historic building, protect open space, conserve farmland, expand parks, roads or libraries, I have always had one unifying goal, and that is to protect and enhance the quality of life for the people I am sworn to serve.

Having the trust of the people is essential for meeting this commitment. That doesn’t mean always having their full agreement, but it does mean having their faith that you will deal with them openly and honor agreements that are made.

The Wastewater Management Plan for Monmouth County is the product of years of effort on the part of many individuals and government agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Monmouth County Planning Board and its staff, the municipal governments of all 53 towns and eight sewerage authorities as well as many other public and private interests.

The process has been a long one. It has required many meetings and a great deal of patience on all sides. It has always been a process that was open, inclusive, collaborative and consensus-building and in almost every case produced an outcome agreeable to all parties. There is a great deal of good in this plan and it must be acknowledged along with the efforts of all who were involved.

Not long ago I had expected that my remarks would end at this congenial point. That is no longer possible. The DEP, acting within its prerogatives, directed Monmouth County to change sewer service area mapping in Holmdel Township.

This is an issue that had been a source of great contention and disagreement throughout the process. It necessitated special meetings and discussions with landowners, the municipality, the sewerage authority and members of the public.

Throughout this long open process, my own thoughts have always been guided by a few specific principles:

  • First, I look to municipal intent as expressed in master plans and zoning ordinances as well as the stated position of the governing bodies;
  • Second, I looked to the broader world of land use policy as embodies in the Monmouth County Growth Management Guide, the State Development and Redevelopment Plan and the Wastewater Management Plan itself, and
  • Third, I looked to the ability of landowners to secure their options through the Monmouth County Planning Board Amendment Review Committee, which is the mechanism by which changes to the plan can be accomplished as disagreements with the municipality are resolved.

What I found is this:

  • There is a consistent concern for protecting drinking water supplies in Monmouth County. A very important element of this is protection of the Swimming River Reservoir, part of a system serving more than 340,000 people, and the watershed that supports it. The southern slope of Holmdel Township is part of that watershed. Holmdel is committed to limiting sewers there.
  • More than 25 years ago, the Monmouth County Planning Board adopted, as part of its Guide Plan, a document that calls for this protection. The State Development and Redevelopment Plan uses locations within a water supply watershed as the basis for designating land as Planning Area 5 – Environmentally Sensitive. This proposed wastewater plan identifies eight Monmouth County water purveyors as being in potential deficit for water supply and finds there is virtually no reserve in the confined aquifers from which their water allocations are drawn.
  • Installing sewers not only facilitates the expansion of impervious cover, which increases storm water runoff, but also transfers wastewater out of the drainage basin and discharges it into the Raritan Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Both of these things reduce groundwater recharge essential to preserving base flow in streams that support the reservoir.
  • The Monmouth County Planning Board Amendment Review Committee remains an effective mechanism for amending this plan that is available to all landowners that secure municipal approvals requiring expanded sewers.

All of these facts argue against the action directed by NJDEP.

My final concern goes beyond these objective and technical issues. It is the matter of public trust I spoke of earlier.

When a process where the greatest care has been taken to build consensus among the parties and protect the rights of all involved is effectually overturned at the 11th hour, the trust of the public is shattered. And when it is done to accomplish something that could as easily be achieved through normal administrative means, it is particularly troubling.

In my experience, one of the most important things about having authority is knowing when not to use it. This is the kind of action that can color relationships with the DEP well into the future and make both individuals and agencies question whether they should see the DEP as a trustworthy partner.

This would be unfortunate; the DEP is a great resource. But once public trust is lost, it is very hard to regain.

Lillian G. Berry

* Lillian G. Burry is a Monmouth County freeholder.