Friday, April 5, 2013

NJ’s top court rules on DEP access to private property

New Jersey wetlands

Does the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have the right to inspect private property covered by the state's Wetlands Protection Act when they have grounds to suspect a violation has occurred?

Yes, the state's Supreme Court ruled yesterday, but with conditions.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Chris Mondics reports today:
The court said in a unanimous opinion that homeowners and others who acquire permits under the state Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act agree as part of the process to allow such inspections, so long as they are conducted at reasonable times.
 In its 56-page opinion, the court said the government's right to search for wetlands violations carries restrictions. Environmental officials may not forcibly enter a property and in cases where there is a dispute, must first seek an order from the Department of Environmental Protection commissioner. The homeowner has the right to contest that in court, but there is a heavy presumption in favor of the state, the Supreme Court said.
"In view of the vital importance of protecting freshwater wetlands in New Jersey, privacy expectations . . . are diminished," the court said. "In effect, a property owner receives the right to develop restricted land in exchange for giving the right of reasonable entry to the DEP to inspect."

In his NJ Spotlight story covering the decision, environmental reporter Tom Johnson writes:
The case was far from simple. The court decision had several caveats, which some conservationists believe could make it harder for the agency to enforce the wetlands law, and possibly other environmental statues.

Related environmental news stories:

NJ high court: DEP OK to fine Hunterdon couple
New Hampshire Company Fined for 'Largest Illegal Wetlands Fill'
Great Lakes wetlands may mitigate climate change

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