WEST MILFORD-The mantra radiating from residents and statewide officials last Saturday was that of "Save our water." The town hall ebbed and flowed with some 170 protestors, young and old, sending a loud message to Department of Environment Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley Campbell and house builder K. Hovnanian to ditch the proposed Eagle Ridge development. The DEP is currently considering a water allocation permit from Hovnanian to drill three new wells to support the Eagle Ridge development as well as for 33 current homes in the area. The awarding of the well permit represents the final obstacle for Hovnanian to building its project for 280 town houses in the Cahill Cross Road area of the town. State and county officials promised to use all influence they have to urge Campbell to reject the water allocation permit and permanently prevent the controversial development from ever taking place. New Jersey's Republican Senator Bob Martin told the assembled crowd he had been assured by Campbell that the commissioner would personally review the water allocation permit. Martin also gave a clear warning to the demonstrators "Let me level with you, this is going to be tough." The state senator also suggested an alternative plan which could ensure the current site remains undisturbed. Martin said "I think in the long term the way out of this problem will be to draw from the state and federal resources and then have a purchase of that property." There exists an irony in West Milford pleading a case for protection of its water. As many as four-million New Jersey residents south and east of the town rely on the water supplied from the reservoirs, lakes and streams of West Milford. Council member James Warden said: "We respectfully ask the leaders of this state, including Brad Campbell to stand up for West Milford, the people who you asked to be responsible for the water, to stand up for us and protect our water supply." Mayor Joseph DiDonato focused on the water supply studies which have been done both by independent sources and by Hovnanian warning "We simply cannot take the chance that all of our studies are wrong and the one commissioned by Hovnanian is right." Alongside support from all township elected officials there was backing from neighboring Ringwood Mayor and Deputy Mayor as well as that of all seven Passaic County Freeholders. Freehold Director Elease Evans said "It's a health issue we are talking about here and we are talking about the future of our children." Evans also said "If we need to line up and march to Trenton, we need to do that." Former West Milford officials were also present at the demonstration including former Deputy Mayor Phil Weisbecker who sat on the planning board and voted against the Eagle Ridge development when it was first introduced. Weisbecker said "I would ask the DEP not to issue any water permit to K. Hovnanian or anyone else until they have done a thorough in-depth hydrology study in the northern part of this state and in West Milford Township." Former chairwoman of the West Milford Well Study Committee, Doris Aronson, said only ineptitude or complicity within the DEP could see the permit awarded. "I would conclude that if the DEP approves Eagle Ridge's well permit then either someone in the DEP is incompetent or someone in the DEP has political or financial connections with Hovnanian." The broader issue of the impact on the local scenic environment and that of wildlife habitat and tourism in the area had been forgotten amidst the water issue. However Don Weise of the New York - New Jersey Trail Conference and member of the Audubon Society brought the subject to the fore by saying "I've heard it said the definition of a large development is where they cut down all the trees and name the streets after them. "Maybe this is the one where they get rid of all the eagles and name the development after them." Weise also said "Cutting down the Highlands and the tourism on which we depend is death by a thousand small cuts." Ridge Road resident Frank Campbell who's property is close to the proposed development said: "About a year ago my well went dry. I had a well drilled for me (that is) 727 feet deep and I paid about $8,000 for it." K. Hovnanian public relations spokesman Doug Fenichel spoke prior to the demonstration saying of the protestors "We believe people will eventually see this as a good thing for the town." Fenichel also said "We know there is a tremendous demand for housing in New Jersey, where will people go who want a house in West Milford?" DEP Commissioner Campbell spoke from his office two days after the demonstration and admitted he was aware of the strong views expressed by the residents of West Milford. Campbell added that: "We don't make decisions based on political pressure." "This is a narrow water supply question
this is not a circumstance where we can deny the permit on anything other than the water issue," the commissioner asserted. With regard to allegations his office could be affected by political or financial pressure from Hovnanian, Campbell dismissed them with one word "Preposterous." Campbell said a decision on the well permit should be made within the next 60 days.