The Highlands Council won a crucial opportunity last week to review the proposed Eagle Ridge Development. The Council held a meeting on April 7 at Passaic County Community College in Wanaque and passed a vote to request the Department of Environmental Protection hold off on making a decision on the water permit needed by the development. The DEP, through its Commissioner Bradley Campbell, agreed to the council's request to delay its long-awaited decision on the water allocation permit application for Eagle Ridge. This allows the council to fully investigate the implications of the planned 280 homes project in the 40-acre site in West Milford. The Highlands Council is a public body comprising 14 members, a mix of statewide elected officials and public member. It is charged with developing a regional master plan, performing land use functions and protecting the region's critical environmental areas and high resource lands. West Milford Municipal Utilities Authority applied for three new wells on the Eagle Ridge site to supply the proposed development and as yet the DEP has made no decision on whether to award the permit. The well permit presents house builder K. Hovnanian with the last significant hurdle to overcome before being able to start work on the land. Highlands Council member and Passaic County Freeholder Lois Cuccinello has been an outspoken opponent to the Eagle Ridge project and admitted this week she was "Cautiously optimistic" that the review process would see the housing plan nixed. Cuccinello also spoke about the aim of the Council's review and its intentions on completion. She said "We are going to focus on the water allocation permit and intend to make recommendations on our findings to the DEP." Cuccinello admitted this is the first time the Highlands Council has stepped forward and taken such a leading role in State business. "We hope to make a huge impact. We are feeling our way through the process however I have always felt we needed to take a more pro-active role." After their review, the council will have a presentation of their findings and make recommendations to the DEP. The review of the water issue by the council coincides with the recent release of a report by the New Jersey Geological Survey carried out by Robert Canace. In his report Canace supports K. Hovnanian's view that there is sufficient and sustainable underground water to support the 1000 or so new residents to West Milford Eagle Ridge would bring without disrupting water flow to other home owners in the township. Doug Fenichel, spokesperson for K. Hovnanian, said of the matter "This is a waste of time, just another delaying tactic. It's time for these permits to be issued and for us to get going." The view that other properties' water flow will not be disrupted, however, is not shared by Matt Mulhall, a hydro-geologist with M" Associates who carried out an evaluation of groundwater resources in West Milford in November 2003. Mulhall read the report this week and found references to his report by Canace included in the ten page document. Mulhall said "My report was mis-characterized. Canace says the Posten method I used was extremely conservative but I would disagree and say in fact the Posten method is very liberal." Mulhall continued "I don't see the scientific justification in its claims. If I completed a report like this for a client I wouldn't expect it to pass muster." The contention that the underground water supply in West Milford could not support a large influx of new users was reiterated by Mulhall saying that if the three new wells were drilled it could in fact see regular drought conditions in the town. Mulhall said "The method I used to measure water supply would show that the streams providing water to the wells would dry up every four or five years." On the topic of water supply being taken from the town to supply so many New Jersey residents, Mulhall said "The reason why Newark takes so much water from the lakes of West Milford is because so little of it leaks vertically into the ground." Erin Phalon, spokesperson for the DEP said this week "The DEP will work with the Highlands Council and allow time for the Council to review the issue." The Eagle Ridge project has been ongoing for ten years since it was first presented to the West Milford council in 1995. Recently, however, it has drawn huge attention from residents and politicians opposed to the plans.