Woodbine is trying to get federal grants to replace septic systems with sewer lines to help spur development in the sleepy Pinelands town.

The borough applied for $4 million in rural development grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to connect businesses and residents along Route 550 to a sewage-treatment plant on Route 9 in Swainton.

The borough has been pursuing sewers for decades to replace old and outdated septic systems.

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“Obviously, it’s a big project — maybe $20 million when it’s done. But it’s going to connect to the Woodbine Developmental Center, the Cape May County landfill, the airport business park and the other businesses,” Mayor William Pikolycky said.

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“It’s desperately needed because of the old septic systems and cesspools that are still here.”

Septic systems have been a limiting factor for development in New Jersey because they require more space for every buildable lot.

It’s also much harder to win permits from the Pinelands Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection with septic systems compared to sewers, businesses say.

Don Gentilini, owner of Gentilini Motors, said it took years for his family business to get land-use permits to build its new dealership on Route 550 and more years of permitting to move its Chevy dealership from Washington Avenue to Route 550 more recently.

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“I’ve been trying to get a sewer here my whole life. I have nothing but good to say about it. You don’t have to go through all the bureaucratic (red tape),” he said. “If we had city sewers here, we’d have built a couple years earlier and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars less. A sewer system would do nothing but good for our town.”

Gentilini said it has taken years for a new thrift store on Washington Avenue to get land-use permits while others have sprouted practically overnight in parts of South Jersey that have sewers.

Homeowners often have to replace poorly functioning or outdated septic systems before they can sell, said Brandon Klein, owner of Family Auto Glass in Woodbine.

“Some of the estimates I’ve had to replace a septic system were $15,000 or $20,000,” he said. “So it would probably be worth it to connect to public sewers in the long run.”

But septic systems aren’t necessarily a dirty word for environmentalists.

Functional septic systems in many cases are preferable to installing sewer systems if doing so encourages suburban sprawl, said Jeff Tittel, spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.

“Rural areas in New Jersey think sewers will help with economic development. But all they end up with is more sprawl,” he said. “Towns think it will be a panacea, but it ends up being a nightmare.”

He led successful opposition to a 1994 referendum to add sewers in parts of Ringwood in Passaic County. He said residents with functioning septic systems did not want to incur the costs of mandatory hookups and septic remediation.

Woodbine’s mayor said he is optimistic the borough will get the USDA grants to begin the sewer project. Eventually, he would like to see sewers extended throughout the residential borough.

“We’re sitting on infrastructure that is as old as Woodbine. Nobody can build on undersized lots without spending thousands and thousands of dollars to improve their septic system. The Pinelands Commission will have a different outlook if there are sewers there. The only thing people are looking for is relief.”

Contact: 609-463-6712

Twitter @ACPressMiller

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