†By Peter Becker
NARROWSBURG- An impassioned plea was made by local officials this past week for some common sense regarding what they see as an overbearing state policy set to ruin the economy for the sake of clean water.
The Upper Delaware Council (UDC), April 4th, heard the dire concerns expressed by Brian Smith, Chairman of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, and Eric Robinson, Chairman of the Shohola Township Planning Commission. The UDC agreed to take action and dispatch a letter to the Pennsylvania Governor and legislators, urging that the proposed policy to be overturned.
In its 25-year history, the UDC has sought to balance the needs of private property owners and the cherished resources of the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River they are sworn to protect. Pennsylvania and New York town bordering the Upper Delaware make up the Council, along with representatives from the National Park Service, both states and the Delaware River Basin Commission.
Objections to the state policy are vehemently shared by both boards of Commissioners for Pike and Wayne Counties, as well as builder associations and are supported by local state legislators. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has taken it up as a top priority, opposing what is described as a draconian measure to protect water even when there is no threat, and at the cost of the local economy.
At issue is the "Anti-Degredation Policy for On-Lot Septic Systems", a policy proposed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and announced in early March in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. This signaled a 30 day comment period, which was then extended to May 1st after complaints were filed that there was not enough time for the public to react.
DEP's policy would apply in areas where there are water bodies rated as High Quality (HQ) or Exceptional Value (EV), which includes the length and breadth of Wayne and Pike counties. The policy would require stiff and costly criteria for building a new home or expanding or establishing a business. The policy targets nitrates that could filter from septic systems into the lakes or streams.
Robinson cautioned that the policy would usurp local zoning ordinances. Despite the fact that local on-lot sewage disposal systems are quite effective, DEP would set in place "corrective actions" called Better Management Practices (BMPs) to be sure that nitrates aren't reaching the already clean groundwater, lakes and streams.
Such actions include 150 foot buffers from streams, deep ditches filled with saw dust and new restrictions on lot sizes. The problem is that not only are the measures not needed due to the already miniscule nitrate levels, the measures will cost property owners many thousands of dollars and render most building lots not useable.
In other words, Smith warned, if you saved for years to build a retirement home, you may find you will not be able to build on that lot and no one will want to buy the property. The local tax base will plummet, as property owners will be coming and asking for lower tax assessments.
Andy Boyar, UDC's delegate for the NY Town of Highland, expressed alarm, because he fits in that category of planning to build a retirement home in Pennsylvania.
"This isnít funny," Boyar remarked. "I have 680 feet on the river and none of it is over 150 feet deep."
In January, Smith said, the Wayne Conservation District and engineering firm Kiley Associates had prepared a presentation to challenge a different DEP policy, known as Chapter 102. This ruling put restrictions on building and required a large setback from streams, but gave an exception if less than one acre was to be disturbed. The latest policy proposal, however, does away with that exception. "This is craziness," Smith said.
"Rainwater has more nitrates than we have," Robinson said. "We are blessed with almost pure water." He said that these "draconian standards defy science" and what they already have in place to protect the water is working. He said that we are being punished for having such good quality water. He likened it to having a good highway without a crash history but you are told you must reduce the speed limit to 5 mph.
UDC Chairman Jeffrey Dexter, of Damascus Township, said that the proposal is not subject to legislative review, as it is considered a "policy" rather than a new "regulation." Robinson stated that DEP can enact the policy regardless of comments filed by May 1st.
Smith remarked that the proposal was "snuck in" and was placed online in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, where less people are likely to read it. Commissioners used to be sent paper versions. Thanks to some zoning officers and others who sounded the alarm, action is swiftly being taken to counter it.
Steps taken- BMPs- to protect water bodies from nitrates earn the property owner certain credits. The problem is that for many lots, there is no way you can earn enough credits, Robinson said.
Furthermore, Dexter added, if your existing property has a septic failure, you will be subject to the new rules. "You may have to leave your house," he stated.
"It boggles your mind," Commissioner Smith told the Council. He put the blame on "downstream people" trying to shut down what happens upstream. Smith said he likes to camp on the Delaware and swim in the Delaware. He likes to fish. He said he understands the need for clean water.
"But you need a balance," Smith stressed. "You canít sell yourself out for clean water."
Warning that the tax base will be eroded, Smith said that a moderate growth rate is necessary, to allow building of homes and businesses. Wayne County, he noted, has been losing population. DEPís proposal, he said, is "very dangerous" to the tax base. "As elected officials we have to stop agreeing to what doesnít make sense. This is devastating."
He continued, "This will ruin Wayne County. It will ruin it for our children."
"Big environmentalists are trying to shut down our area so they make it their playground so they can come up once in a while and go down the river," Smith commented.
A quick analysis was done at the Wayne County Courthouse to see how much land would be rendered useless for building, by the proposed policy. The result came to 71,000 acres. "This is huge," Smith warned.
His counterparts on the Pike County Board of Commissioners likewise harshly condemn the proposal.
Eleven and a quarter acres would be needed just to build a house. You wouldnít even be able to subdivide it.
Smith said this amounts to a land taking and loss of freedom.
Gasps could be heard around the UDC table at many points. "What country are we living in?," Nadia Rajsz (UDC-Town of Lumberland), asked rhetorically.
Recourse for property owners may be attempts to sue the state, Smith said. He lamented this day, when reasoning with government agencies short of going to court, would not work.
Smith recommended referring to the web site of the Wayne County Builders Association, which plans to post template letters and talking points for anyone wishing to send comment letters.
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