Over 60 Groups Urge Gov. Murphy to Pause Dangerous Permits & Projects until COVID Health Crisis Ended

The Freeholder fight unites more than it delights.
Empower NJ Public Participation Release FINAL 3.30.20

Over 60 Groups Urge Gov. Murphy to Pause Dangerous
Permits & Projects until COVID Health Crisis Ended

Groups Urge Executive Order to Ensure Meaningful Public Participation

Incredibly April Toll Hike ‘Public’ Hearings Still On

Trenton – EmpowerNJ, representing more than 60 signatory organizations around the state, including
labor, faith, environmental and community organizations, released a copy of its letter
(http://empowernewjersey.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Empower_NJ_Covid_letter_3-27-2020.pdf) to Governor Murphy urging the Administration to pause pending proceedings and actions with respect to approving applications and permits for all major development projects where public participation is allowed, including fossil fuel infrastructure expansion, until the unprecedented COVID-19 health emergency has ended and the public can once again participate in government decision-making. There cannot be meaningful public participation when the public is being told to shelter in place.

“Governor Murphy, you have taken bold and unprecedented actions to protect our communities from
COVID 19 and to curtail community spread of the virus with one important and inexplicable exception:
public participation in government hearings and decision-making. We are calling on you to pause pending permits and projects that usually afford public participation processes until after the COVID-19 health emergency has ended and full public access can be restored,” reads the letter.

Without action from the Governor, agencies like the NJ Turnpike and the South Jersey Transportation
Authorities have moved forward with public hearings and permit decision timelines despite the
pandemic. There cannot be a fair, thorough and inclusive public process during a public health
emergency that restricts the public’s ability to participate. Many of the projects currently moving forward pose serious public health, environmental and economic risks and impacts that will persist for decades.

“Some governmental actions are undermining the public’s right to participate in government
decision-making on consequential projects, policies, and regulations. While residents are practicing social distancing, self-isolation or quarantine, and many are out of work and making personal sacrifices for themselves and their families, the government continues making decisions business as usual that will have impacts on our communities and the environment well after the COVID 19 crisis ends,” reads the letter.

Government buildings are currently closed and providing records to the public via the time prescribed by
OPRA (Open Public Records Act) has been lengthened based on recent legislation (A3849) signed into
law by the Governor. There are numerous other projects, including fossil fuel infrastructure and local
contentious development projects, that are impacted. For example (see attached addendum for details):

● NESE Frack Gas Pipeline: April 3rd public comment deadline, no public hearing scheduled;
● NJ Turnpike Authority & SJTA Highway Widenings & Toll Hikes: Public hearings for the
Turnpike Authority were held on March 18 & SJTA has scheduled hearings for April 1 & 2;
● NJ TRANSIT: Frack gas power plant moving forward, renewable alternative stalled;
● NJDEP/DRBC Land Use and Water Quality Permitting: e.g. Haberman project, Hampton,
NJ; April 6th NJDEP public hearing in Oakland, NJ; DRBC LNG hearing;
● Controversial Local Development Projects: The Jaindl Warehouse, White Township, Warren
County; Sewell Tract, Cape May; etc.; and
● DCA Guidance to Towns: Some municipalities are advancing planning board applications and
other development while only limited government functions are supposed to occur.

“There is very serious concern that towns will move ahead with major developments and zone changes
that could have statewide implications on the environment, flooding, and even public health. If local
government does online municipal council, zoning and planning board meetings, it will not allow for a
give and take with experts being questioned or witnesses being cross-examined, and it will severely limit
the dialogue with the public. We believe that these meetings must be postponed during the public health
emergency unless they are dealing with COVID 19 or public safety issues. These are quasi-judicial or
legislative decisions that could have long-term consequences,” reads the letter.

Meaningful public participation requires the trifecta of in-person hearings, full access to government
records and full support systems. Merely replacing public participation with electronic comment
submission or video access to proceedings is not a substitute for live hearings where people can testify
and interact. Many people simply don’t have access to computers or smart phones and an in-person
hearing is their only way to testify, even in the best of times. During this uncertain and stressful health
emergency, it is wholly unjust to expect residents to take part when they may not have the technology at
home, records access is limited, and families are literally facing personal life and death issues. This is not
a time for developers or agencies to “game the system” by pushing through projects without full
transparency and public input. The letter was signed by more than 60 organizations across the state
representing hundreds of thousands of members, and the organizations are listed below.

The letter ends:

“EMPOWER NJ considers the public’s right to participate in government decision-making to be
paramount at all times. We recognize that some projects like the proposed Williams NESE pipeline and
compressor station are subject to permitting timelines under federal law, and these timelines need to be
accounted for by an executive action. With the exception of true health-related emergency actions during
the COVID 19 emergency, decisions made by the government regarding permits and projects that include a public participation component must be put on hold until meaningful and freely accessible public input can once again be included,” the letter finishes.

PLACE: On March 18, after the Governor issued a state of emergency, the NJ Turnpike Authority
unconscionably held an in-person public hearing on their plans for a massive expansion of the NJ
Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. Incredibly, the South Jersey Transportation Authority plans the
same for the Atlantic City Expressway on April 1st (no April Fool’s) and April 2 after the Governor
strengthened his order to shelter in place. Their proposed highway expansion would add hundreds of
thousands of new cars onto our roads, increasing toxic air pollution and climate-disrupting greenhouse
gases for many decades to come. The $24 billion capital plan stands in stark contrast to the failing
infrastructure of NJ Transit, which has taken a body blow during the COVID-19 pandemic because of
declining fare revenue. These hearings are clear violations of the social distancing policies in place under
NJ’s state of emergency and put attendees’ health at risk.

DEADLINE. We believe DEP should extend the comment period for Williams Transco’s Northeast
Supply Enhancement (NESE) project. People are in the middle of dealing with the coronavirus and
helping their families. The NESE project, which includes the compressor station and pipeline, is a
dangerous, damaging and unnecessary project that would pollute our waterways, increase greenhouse
gases and jeopardize public safety. The project would cause irreparable harm to our environment and
dredge up pollution from the Raritan Bay all the way to Long Island. April 6th is not enough time for the
public to comment; we believe it should be extended until at least after the health emergency is over.

MOVING FORWARD. NJ Transit has said that because of the coronavirus emergency they cannot
engage in discussions or plans to utilize renewable energy technologies/storage for their
NJTRANSITGRID power plant. This includes refusing to look at pre-identified locations for solar panels
and not even providing guidance as to how renewable energy providers can register as bidders for this
contract. At the same time, when asked if they had halted work on their plans for a frack gas plant, they
failed to respond. The virus emergency has made it much more difficult for the public to voice its
demands for a renewable energy alternative to the leadership and working level management at NJ
Transit. We cannot present at board meetings and cannot ask NJ Transit for meetings to address our
requests. We call upon Governor Murphy to enact an executive order halting all NJ Transit work on its
frack gas power plant and to instruct NJ Transit to fully investigate renewable energy alternatives as
thoroughly as it investigated the gas power plant solution.

DCA GUIDANCE TO TOWNS: Public Law 2020 (A3850/S2294), signed into law by the Governor to
allow public bodies to conduct meetings electronically, limits action “to the extent practicable” to public
business necessary for the continuing operation of government and matters related to the emergency. But this is being interpreted by some towns to allow the advancement and approval of planning board
applications and other development. This should not be allowed while the public is handicapped, limiting public input; relatedly, the clock should stop ticking on these and other approvals that fall under rules that receive automatic approval if they are not acted on within a limited amount of time.

numerous applications of land use permits in front of DEP that will have direct impacts on water quality,
flooding, and open space. Some of these permits include Wetlands, Stream Encroachment, Flood Hazard, CAFRA and others that are open for review by the public. There needs to be an open and transparent process and ability for the public to comment. However, the public cannot access these due to OPRA, either because DEP are not able to get the documents or because of delays. This will bring the timelines of many of these permits beyond their decision date, which in some cases would mean permits would be granted automatically because of tolling and Deemer Clauses.

Just as important, there are dozens of Water Quality Plan Amendments that are out for public comment. For example, the proposed Haberman Hampton project is a 333-unit housing development in Hampton, NJ that has applied for a Sewer Service Area on a C1 River that is also Wild and Scenic – the Musconetcong River. This is an area where the discharge of sewage could have direct impacts on the River and public health. There is also a Water Quality Plan Amendment in the Borough of Oakland with a public hearing scheduled for April 6th.

currently dozens of projects in front of local planning boards that would have detrimental impacts on
water quality, greenhouse gas emissions and more if approved. For example, there is a massive Jaindl
Land Co. warehouse that has been proposed on environmentally sensitive farmland in White Township,
and a similar project in Franklin Township in Hunterdon County. The Sewell Tract in Cape May is a
housing development on environmentally sensitive wetlands that is currently in front of the planning
board and also in front of DEP. We are concerned that planning boards will continue to move forward
with projects like these at a time when the public cannot participate in what is a quasi-judicial process.
These projects could be approved without public participation because there is a tolling. If they are not
dealt with by the planning board by a certain time, they are automatically approved unless the applicant
agrees to it. We are also concerned that town councils could also be approving zone changes, rezonings
and overlay zones without proper public input or hearings.

Already Devalued.. Homeowners of Parsippany
Bus for Progress
Central Jersey Environmental Defenders
Clean Ocean Action
Clean Water Action*
Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline – NJ
Coalition for Peace Action
Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains
Don’t Gas the Meadowlands*
Delaware Riverkeeper Network*
Displaced Homemakers Network of NJ, Inc.
Environment New Jersey*
Food & Water Watch*
Franciscan Response to Fossil Fuels
Franklin Womens’ Club
Gloucester County Food & Water Watch
Green Party of Monmouth County NJ
Green Party of NJ
Hackensack Riverkeeper
Hudson County Progressive Alliance
Hudson County Sierra Club Group
Indivisible Cranbury
NJ & NY Awareness Project for Climate Justice
NJ Sierra Club*
NJ Tenants Organization
NJ State Industrial Union Council
NJ Student Sustainability Coalition
North Jersey Green Alliance
North Jersey Sierra Club
Northern New Jersey NOW
Our Revolution – Bergen Cty – Hillsdale, NJ
Our Revolution Essex County
Our Revolution Monmouth County
Our Revolution New Jersey
Our Revolution Ocean County
Our Revolution Passaic County
People Demanding Action NJ
People Over Pipelines
People’s Climate Collective
Pinelands Preservation Alliance
Possible Planet
Roseland Against Compressor Station (RACS)
Rutgers AAUP-AFT
SOMA Action
Sunrise Jersey Shore
Sunrise Montclair
Sunrise Movement Morris County
Surfrider Foundation
Teaneck Peace Vigil
The Climate Mobilization
The Climate Mobilization – Hoboken Chapter
The Resistance Cafe
The Wei LLC
UU Faith Action NJ-Environmental Justice Task
Westfield 20/20

* Denotes Empower NJ Steering Committee member

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