When it comes to the environment there seem to be few moves taken by governmental agencies that don’t swirl up a big batch of controversy. One group’s save-the-environment idea is another group’s apocalypse.

And even among this usual back-and-forth, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s recently passed waiver rule has been especially controversial. While the waiver rule is touted by supporters as a way to cut through bureaucracy, opponents fear the waivers are a state-sponsored way to let contractors skirt the very rules that are meant to keep them from harming the environment.

On top of this, labor activists and unions see the waivers as yet another attempt by the Christie administration to undermine unions and OSHA regulations by providing loopholes in regulations.

Amid the emotions, there are fears and myths and worries that Lucy Vandenberg and others at PlanSmart NJ would like to see addressed. PlanSmart is hosting a policy briefing on the waiver rule on Thursday, September 13, at 8 a.m. at the College of New Jersey as a forum to express the concerns and facts about the controversial law that went into effect on August 1.

Vandenberg, PlanSmart’s executive director, will open and close the forum, which will also feature a talk by Irene Kropp, deputy commissioner of the NJDEP, on the waiver rule’s objectives, use, and the process and criteria for obtaining a waiver.

Following this will be a panel discussion with presentations by Michael Gross of Giordano of Halloran and Ciesla in Trenton, who will discuss the waiver rule from the developer attorney’s perspective; and George Vallone, president of Hoboken Brownstone Company, who will give the developer’s perspective.

Also on the panel is Tony DiLodovico owner of Tony D Consulting Company, who will present the consultant’s perspective; and attorney Michael Pisauro of Pennington, who will discuss the rule from the environmental perspective. Cost to attend the forum is $65. Call 609-393-9434 or visit www.plansmartnj.org.

At its heart, the waiver rule is designed to allow contractors to seek waivers from some of DEP’s stricter rules.

According to the rule, DEP can only consider a waiver if one of four special conditions are met: if a rule conflicts with other state or federal rules; if it is “unduly burdensome,” meaning that special technical or topographical issues exist that would make going by the book a practical impossibility; if the waiver creates “a net environmental benefit,” meaning that the benefits of any work or action would outweigh the benefits of not having done the job; or, if there is a public emergency.

The idea for the waiver rule was first introduced a year ago. Governor Christie framed the idea as a step toward common sense by allowing developers and contractors to cut through the state’s legendary, costly, and time-consuming bramble of red tape.

But the idea of a way around the state’s environmental rules immediately sparked a backlash from environmental and labor groups which, in addition to worrying about the environment (the Sierra Club called it “one of the worst and most destructive rules ever written”), feel that the waiver rule will simply replace front-end bureaucracy with an onslaught of lawsuits.

It already has generated a lawsuit against the state by several groups. Also, the Assembly approved a resolution in May that would invalidate the rule, but it also requires concurrent action by the state Senate, which has not voted on the measure.

Despite the setbacks and potential legal thorns, however, the bill passed the state Senate in July and was signed into effect as of August 1.

At the signing, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin defended the rule by saying “a lack of flexibility can sometimes produce unreasonable, unfair, or unintended results that actually undermine the goal that the requirement was intended to attain.

“This provides us with a modest measure of flexibility to manage special circumstances but through a process that will be used under limited circumstances and with total transparency.”

Vandenberg says PlanSmart has taken no official side, except one that encourages calm and reasoned discourse.

She says her agency can see both sides of the picture and admits that something should be done to ease the process and bureaucracy. She adds, however, that strict rules need to be in place to keep anyone from getting around any rules.

“I think there is a lot of fear over this,” she says. PlanSmart put together the September 13 forum to try to convey the truth that there will be no arbitrary waivers granted and that the underlying meaning of the rule is not really to undermine the environment or its protections.

“Instead of listening to all the hype, let’s just see how this unfolds,” she says.

Vandenberg is a first-generation American, born to two Dutch scientists, and is a regular visitor to her parents’ home country. There, she says, planning is laid out like a chess game, each component taken as part of an extended set of moves that all complement each other.

Mass transit, multi-modal transit, and family and community-centered town development factor big in Holland’s land use picture, and Vandenberg would like to replicate it in her home state.

A native of Summit, Vandenberg took over at PlanSmart in April, just four months after longtime president and executive director Dianne Brake stepped down. Ann Brady replaced Brake as president in January (and remains president). Brake remains with PlanSmart as a senior policy advisor.

PlanSmart’s main focus is on land use, economic development, transportation, and infrastructure. Vandenberg has a long history in all of these.

A licensed professional planner, she holds a bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Michigan and a master’s in administration, policy, and planning from Rutgers.

From 1997 to 2002 Vandenberg worked in the non-profit sector, serving as the associate director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

She was the executive director of the NJ Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) from 2003 until 2010. Before that she was a senior policy advisor for housing and urban revitalization under Governor Jim McGreevey.

Her last job was as planning and redevelopment aide for the city of Camden, which she held for about a year.

More than anything, Vandenberg wants people to keep a level head. “Maybe some complaints are legitimate,” she says. “But maybe this rule will do some good. We just have to wait and see.”

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