"It is a tension that is very real," said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "How much development should be allowed and where should it go, and what's best for the natural environment and for the economic well-being" of the state?
The proposed legislation is yet one more facet of the debate, which apparently was raging Friday as interest groups stepped up their advocacy on the proposed measure.
Two sponsors, one in the Senate and one in the Assembly, did not return calls seeking comment.
Specifically, the bill would delay - yet again, by up to two years - limits on sewer service, a key ingredient of high-density development. As sewers accommodate development, they also attract more development.
Since 2008, the state's counties have been working to meet a state requirement that they come up with new master plans showing where sewer lines could, and could not, go.
Two deadlines have come and gone, and still no plans.
"The complexity of the rules has made compliance . . . virtually impossible," said Larry Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "We're going into a bureaucratic logjam."
A 13-member coalition of environmental groups contends that about 300,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land are at risk of being developed if the proposed legislation is passed and another delay ensues.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, contended a delay would bring about "a Super Bowl of sprawl."
The groups released a report last week showing that if all the land was built with high-density development, tons of additional nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment - the three major pollutants of concern - would flow into the state's waterways.
Many of those waters are already impaired and not meeting the use for which they are intended, such as recreation or drinking water.
Among places at most risk, they said, are the Delaware Bayshore in Cumberland County and Barnegat Bay, which has been in decline for decades. Gov. Christie has proposed a restoration plan for the bay, and last year the DEP announced $1.2 million in funding for studies.
The groups contend that if an additional 35,000 acres were developed in nearby Ocean County - as they say a delay in the rule could allow - it would significantly undermine the bay's recovery.
On Friday, the groups released a second report, prepared by hydrogeologist Peter Demicco. He estimated that if all the land in question were developed - and water pollution occurred - the cost of additional water treatment for residential and industrial consumers could total $217 million to $435 million annually.
Business groups support the legislation.
Michael G. McGuinness, who heads a state commercial real estate developers association, said that under the existing rules, the DEP has the authority to cancel sewer service areas in counties that do not have plans.
In essence, the agency could "pull the rug out" from under developers, he said. They could start a project, but then wind up without adequate sewer service for it.
"It's a chaotic scene out there for planners, and investors don't want to touch a lot of these things," he said.
"We believe that the legislation is absolutely necessary to provide certainty and predictability and fairness for towns and projects and developers," McGuinness said.
He said that ample environmental regulations exist and that a delay of the rules would not affect water quality.
Last week, the EPA's regional administrator, Judith A. Enck, said that she and her staff had concerns. In a letter to state Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), who had asked the EPA to evaluate the legislation, Enck said that some provisions could put municipalities out of compliance with the Clean Water Act.
She said that the 2008 measure - the Water Quality Management Planning Rules - was "among the best in the nation" and that a delay in implementation "could undermine years of comprehensive planning and lead to degradation of surface and groundwater."
Enck noted that the federal government gave the state $1.6 million to help develop the local plans. "The EPA has a strong interest in this work continuing along its current path," she wrote.
Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey, said the main reason the counties had not met the deadlines for the 2008 rules is that they have been given too many exemptions.
She said the rules had been "a last-ditch effort . . . the last push in the race for open space," and now being weakened.
The 2010 census showed that New Jersey has 1,195.5 residents per square mile. Some estimate that the state has 800,000 to a million acres left that could be developed.
McGuinness said no one really knows anymore. The planning documents the estimates are based on are two decades old, he said, and planners at every level are taking a fresh look.
"There are too many broader policy questions that need to be vetted," he said. "It's anybody's guess as to how many acres we're talking about and where they are."
Tittel said the state had plenty of land aside from environmentally sensitive areas that could be developed.
Jaborska said redevelopment offers significant additional opportunities. Given urban decay and an aging infrastructure, "there's so much work that needs to be done," she said. "It's really a matter of deciding where you want to target the development and the growth."
"We'll have to see what we want to put aside, what we want to save for environmental reasons and quality-of-life reasons and health reasons," Jaborska said. "That's where we are at this point."
Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, email@example.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at philly.com/greenspace