NEW JERSEY WETLANDS RULING DRAWS FIRE

Environmentalists have charged that a recent ruling by state Attorney General Robert Del Tufo has gutted New Jersey's 1987 Freshwater Wetlands Act. The ruling exempts property where developers applied for subdivision or site-plan approvals before June 8, 1987, or had received preliminary approval before July 1, 1988.

``Del Tufo just opened the door,'' Candace Ashmun, a member of the Pinelands Commission, said. ``They've basically exempted everything in the state.''

The Freshwater Wetlands Act bans development and filling of swamps, marshes, and other wetlands and requires a buffer zone.

Environmentalists have picked up some unusual allies, including Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who fears that further development in the Hackensack Meadowlands would hurt his city. Mr. James sent a letter to Gov. James Florio pushing for a moratorium on exemptions and telling him Del Tufo's opinion ``threatens to make a mockery of New Jersey's freshwater wetlands protection program.''

``The opinion is especially damaging because, in many cases, wetlands protection will be weaker than before the act was passed because state law preempts municipalities from regulating and protecting wetlands,'' James said.

The Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic has already mounted two legal challenges. The clinic is seeking an administrative hearing on the proposed Metroplex complex in Middlesex County, the billion-dollar office project that led to Del Tufo's ruling, and has also asked the Appellate Division of Superior Court to rule.

The clinic is representing several environmental agencies.

New Jersey has 322,949 acres classified as freshwater wetlands, mostly in the southern part of the state.

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