DTMUA Meeting Touches on Variety of Township Issues

At its regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 7 the Delaware Township Municipal Utilities Authority held its annual reorganization; long-time Chairman Bill Schroeher announced that the board needs to start thinking about new leadership – he anticipates moving to Pennsylvania, but will stay on until the end of 2009. Ginny Hook is retiring after more than twenty years’ service at the end of 2008. The departure of these two long-term members will constitute a fundamental change in the fabric of the board.

Several residents of “the light district” – the sewer service area – were present to discuss impending rate hikes.  MUA rates are going up by $185 per household this year, an increase of about twenty percent. The Chairman explained that the Authority has had unusual expenses, both for litigation and needed improvements to the plant. The MUA has incurred high legal fees dealing with the developer Perimeter Properties, whose new subdivision is connected to the sewer system. Perimeter, by far the most litigious developer in the Township in recent memory, has stopped making escrow payments. The residents of the new units are not a problem, the Chairman assured the group, and pay their utility bills on time. The Perimeter subdivision pushed DTMUA over the 80% capacity threshold, which triggered a state-mandated Capacity Assurance Plan, but the $40,000 cost of that study is being borne by the Township Committee and the developer.

The DEP has passed new regulations for sewer effluent. Mr. Schroeher and Dr. Andy Higgins, the MUA’s professional engineer, told the meeting that the state does not differentiate between sizes of sewer plants and because the MUA has such a small group of ratepayers, the burden of compliance with the new regs could be heavy.  They are looking closely at the options. The plant was built in 1967, and it will be necessary to upgrade it to meet these new standards.  If the state imposes stricter standards, an eventuality that some consider inevitable, the MUA may even be forced into replacement, both because of its age and because of the new regs.

Dr. Higgins said that the regulations include new lower levels for phosphorous, copper, zinc and other metals in the effluent. Zinc is present in old pipes and solder, but not in newer systems using PVC pipe. Copper can occur naturally in the soil in Hunterdon County and is in the water, and therefore in the effluent. The MUA currently chlorinates and de-chlorinates the water. To eliminate the risk of spilling chlorine in a C-1 stream, the MUA could switch to an ultraviolet light system to kill bacteria. This would also save labor costs.

Dr. Higgins said the MUA has been seeking relief from the DEP for some of these levels, unsuccessfully, and anticipates litigating to challenge the scientific basis of the new regulations. He is cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the scientific challenge. Nevertheless, Mr. Schroeher advised the ratepayers that even if DTMUA obtains relief from the new regs, the MUA could be facing over $1 million in expenses for new equipment.

Mr. Schroeher said that the MUA “could be looking at bonded debt”. The cell tower on the MUA water tower generates $75,000 income annually. Some of that income goes to offsetting user-rates and some goes to the capital expense account.  Casting another cloud on the future, the Chairman warned that the board should plan for the eventuality of losing that income.  “Some day technology is going to make that cell-tower obsolete and we will lose that income.  We need to plan for that possibility.”

To put the rate hike in context, Mr. Schroeher noted that, compared to the cost of repairing or replacing a failed domestic septic system, $185 is not much. The DEP’s new regulations for effluent aim at protecting and improving water quality. But, Mr. Schroeher noted, failure to maintain septic systems is a bigger problem for water quality in Delaware Township than sewer effluent, given that the majority of Township residents use wells and septic systems. Currently, the State requires examination and repair of septic systems only when a property is sold. This may soon change.

This does not change the fact that the MUA may face big maintenance expenses, and soon. Light district resident Bill Emery asked whether the MUA could get some new users to help defray future costs, or would it have to raise rates still higher.  Chairman Schroeher replied that that question would serve as a good introduction to the scheduled presentation by the Zoning Review Committee.

Roger Harris, Chairman of the Zoning Review Committee, (and an editor of The Post) began his comments by noting that the Township’s current Land Use Ordinance, its zoning document, is not fulfilling the goals of the Township Master Plan, in particular the preservation of farmland and open space, and the protection of an adequate safe supply of drinking water. A study by the Township’s professional hydrogeologist, Matt Mulhall, shows that minimum lot sizes should be increased to meet State nitrate dilution regulations.  He gave a brief background on the appointment of the Zoning Review Committee and their work done to date.

Mr. Harris projected aerial views of some housing developments built in Delaware Township in the recent past, showing how the current zoning also fails to preserve farmland and open space. One shows a long cul-de-sac with about a dozen houses. “These houses are plopped down in the middle of an otherwise uninterrupted agricultural area – consuming 100% prime agricultural soils.”  Another aerial photo shows three development patterns: the compact village of Sergeantsville abutting a classic sprawl subdivision of four houses centered in four 3-acre suburban lawns, and a clustered subdivision with small lots and a large area of open space.  “These 3-acre lots are consuming 100% prime ag soils, but in this case, perhaps more importantly, we are left with an overall plan that lacks cohesion.”

Besides the failure of current township zoning to meet Master Plan goals, the Township and indeed the state as a whole is now facing an increasing reluctance of voters to approve tax increases to continue funding land preservation. In the November 2007 elections, the land preservation referendum statewide passed by the lowest margin ever, and for one year only, instead of the previous ten years. Hunterdon voters rejected it.

In this context, the ZRC is looking for other state-approved tools to preserve land and plan development; with the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) the Committee thinks it may have found one.  Mr. Harris explained that the ZRC does not think that TDR is appropriate for the entire township, but rather for a portion.  Other changes being considered include potentially larger lots to meet the septic effluent standards and the goals of the Master Plan, and also some creative clustering on small community wastewater systems.

A TDR plan approved by the NJ Office of Smart Growth would enable the township to cluster new houses far more tightly, thereby preserving significant tracts of open space. It would also allow the Township to require developers to build and pay for both COAH housing and housing more affordable to young people or retirees. Developers could also be required to pay for sewage treatment plants.

When Mr. Harris finished his presentation and asked for public comment, Chairman Schroeher remarked that the best site for the receiving zones would be in Newark or other urban areas. Mr. Harris agreed:  “You are way ahead of this, Bill.  Clearly the right place to build is in areas where infrastructure already exists.  The problem is that nobody else wants the development either.”  He continued with his personal opinion, saying that he thought that eventually the state could end up requiring such a system, but that is not being discussed in Trenton.  “And by then, it’ll be too late.”