Construction is set to begin on a $50 million project to expand sewage service in undeveloped sections of eastern Camden County, including portions of the Pinelands, laying the groundwork for 10,000 new homes.
The county plan - paid for with a low-interest loan from a state environmental fund - comes as the region wrestles with tight municipal budgets caused by the real estate slowdown and shrinking property values.
"That part of Camden County that has remained stagnant because of water and sewer issues," said Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash. "Hopefully, the economy is going to substantially turn around in the next few years, so this is the best time to rebuild the infrastructure."
The 25 miles of new sewage lines will enable residential and commercial construction in Winslow Township, Berlin Township, Berlin Borough, Pine Hill, Waterford Township, and Chesilhurst. Much of the region was at its building limit because of the limited capacity of the existing sewage system and proximity of the Pinelands conservation area and the underlying Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer.
The amount of water pumped from the aquifer almost doubled between 1991 and 2010, due largely to increased development on the Jersey Shore, spurring fears that the water level would eventually drop too low to support wildlife in the area.
To ensure the aquifer is not further depleted, Winslow Township - which will get most of the new sewage capacity - has agreed to meet any additional water needs with a deal with a subsidiary of the utility American Water, which draws from the Delaware River. Other Pinelands towns have the option to enter into similar deals.
The expanded service "does promote growth, but it's growth that's within the Pinelands plan," said Rich Bizub, director of water programs for the nonprofit Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
The mid-2000s saw an upsurge in construction of moderately priced houses in the eastern part of the county, traditionally a rural area. Many of the area's new residents were Atlantic City casino employees unable to afford to live at the Shore.
"It was booming. People were lining up when new communities were opening," said Rick Van Osten, executive vice president of the Builders League of South Jersey.
In the summer of 2006, with Atlantic City's fortunes declining and home prices sagging, questions about overbuilding began to surface. Developers such as Mark Fiorentino, of Winslow, wonder if the local housing market will ever be what it was.
"I can count on my hand how many houses have been built in the last three years," he said. "There's an abandoned home right next door to me. The guy bought it at the top of the market, couldn't afford the mortgage, and took off. You drive around, and you see it everywhere."
There is hope that New Jersey's real estate market, which suffered less than those in other parts of the country, may be turning a corner.
"Settlements are up. Prices are going up," said Jean Bonilla, a real estate broker with Prudential Fox & Roach in Mount Laurel. "It's been so long since we've seen that."
Construction projects delayed by a six-year moratorium on sewer-line hook-ups in Winslow, including a 280-townhouse development on Route 73, are preparing to to resume, said Township Administrator Joe Gallagher.
"I've been getting phone calls from developers," he said.
Installing the sewage lines is set to begin this month and is expected to take 18 months. The construction loan, to the county's Municipal Utility Authority by the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, will be repaid by ratepayers, but Nash said the anticipated population growth would add enough customers to prevent the need for a rate increase.
The push to increase construction comes as the value of Camden County's taxable property shrank $2 billion, or 5 percent, between 2009 and 2011. Like many local governments in New Jersey, it is racing to add new homes and businesses.
Whether to spend the money to expand sewer service into Waterford and Berlin had been under discussion for more than two decades, Nash said.
"It's been debated for a long period of time how we can expand the ratable base in the eastern county," he said. "There is a value to that region of the county."
Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or firstname.lastname@example.org.