Climate Change and the Pinelands
Updates from the Pinelands Commission’s Climate Change Committee
By Heidi YehDecember 5, 2022
Climate change mitigation and adaptation is finally on its way to the Pinelands! Following a fruitful discussion at the November 30th meeting of the climate committee of the Pinelands Commission, the Commission now seems poised to make significant progress updating the Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) to address the challenges of climate change.
The CMP, which has guided all activity in the Pinelands since 1980, still makes no explicit reference to climate change. In March 2021, Pinelands Preservation Alliance drew attention to this fact with the production of a white paper that emphasized the need for action on this front by the Pinelands Commission. A year later, the Commission renamed its climate committee and launched a webpage on the topic. In March 2022, the Commission adopted a resolution to undertake the task of reviewing and amending the CMP to address the threats posed by climate change. The committee’s chair, Mark Lohbauer, issued a letter to the rest of the committee in July outlining a range of ideas that could be explored. As with all major policy changes, progress has been slow—not helped by the fact that climate committee meetings have taken a backseat due to less-than-ideal scheduling that is set to change next year.
Commission members seem eager to make many changes that could help mitigate climate change or reduce its impact on humans and wildlife in the Pinelands. However, each potential change requires extensive background research as well as legal analysis of what is actually within the power of the Commission to enforce. Given the perennial staffing shortages that the Commission faces, the Commissioners must be judicious in selecting what tasks they want to dedicate the limited time of their staff to. Conversation at the last meeting of the Climate committee focused on identifying one or more issues that should be prioritized for development into full proposals for amendments. The Commissioners coalesced around the following issues:
- Developing comprehensive rules to govern solar development to facilitate its responsible proliferation throughout the Pinelands. Solar energy has really taken off in the last decade, and the Pinelands Commission has suddenly found itself faced with many proposals for creative implementations of this technology that the CMP seems ill-equipped to handle. For example, the CMP currently does not allow solar installations on farmland, although there are ways that it can coexist with active farm production. The Commission may also find ways to reduce administrative hurdles for solar projects that can meet certain criteria. PPA is especially in favor of measures to encourage solar installations over land that is already developed, such as the roofs of buildings and over parking lots. The latter could be especially helpful for Pinelands residents adapting to climate change, as shaded parking lots can reduce extreme heat exposure during our increasingly hot summers.
- Adopt “no net loss of trees” policy in the Pinelands. Requiring new developments to limit tree canopy removal and/or compensate for necessary tree removal would help reduce energy consumption, preserve tree function as a carbon sink, improve air quality, and generally contribute to maintaining Pinelands characteristics. This requirement could be implemented in a number of ways through either incentivizing canopy preservation and/or penalizing canopy removal. The CMP already requires certain landscaping and vegetation standards under N.J.A.C. 7:50-6.21, and amendments could be made to this section.
- Reviewing the management area map to identify areas where land is slated for development that is threatened by increasing flood hazards. The current map of the Pinelands (left) divides the region into management areas that are subject to different rules for development. These regions were established in a way that considered existing human development, ecological needs, and the goal of concentrating development around the perimeter of the Pinelands or in designated regional growth areas. Similarly, at the municipal level, towns are responsible for designating areas where development will be concentrated to promote conservation in other areas. With climate change and its associated flooding hazards in the mix, the calculus for what areas are the most suitable for development have changed. It seems very likely that the Pinelands Commission will direct its staff to examine the intersection between the Pinelands Management Areas and climate change hazards that have already been established by other organizations, such as NOAA (right). For several years, PPA has been encouraging the Pinelands Commission to do this and work with municipalities to adjust their master plans accordingly.
New Jersey already has a requirement for state projects thanks to The New Jersey No Net Loss (NNL) Compensatory Reforestation Act (N.J.S.A. 13:1L-14.1 et. seq.). The Pinelands Commission can adopt a similar provision for all development that results in deforestation of one-half acre or more. Extensive guidance for determining reforestation requirements is provided in New Jersey’s program guidelines found here.
More low-hanging fruit for the Commission to cherry-pick:
PPA appreciates that Commissioners have demonstrated great ambitions to address climate change in the areas under its jurisdiction. Given that the ambitions of Commissioners are likely greater than the capacity of their staff, PPA is also recommending a couple of low-hanging fruit that should be relatively easy to implement.
- Adopt the list of Plant Species of Concern that have been identified by the state of New Jersey, protecting an additional 55 species along with the 111 that are already protected explicitly by the CMP or by the State Endangered List. PPA celebrates the fact that the Pinelands Commission provides more consistent and thorough protections for plant species than would otherwise be required by DEP in the rest of the state. However, a semantic difference has caused a large number of species to be precluded from receiving the protections that they are due. To help these species survive the threat that climate change poses to them, we should take every action that we can to relieve the other pressures that they also face from human development.
- The Commission should adopt the measures that it already developed to restructure the Pinelands Development Credit (PDC) program. This program was established to provide financial incentives to shift development pressure from rural areas towards regional growth areas instead. However, the way that the program is currently structured provides a financial incentive to build at lower density and provides no incentive to adopt any other beneficial design feature in a development plan. Thus, the current structure encourages exactly the kind of sprawl development that most harms environmental, scenic and cultural values. The Commission has already developed an extensive amendment to the PDC program that was fully reviewed by the Commissioners and reviewed by the public, so PPA fully supports moving forward with these previously identified changes.
What are your thoughts on these ideas? Do you have additional ideas that you think should be prioritized for consideration in the coming year? Please let us know so that we can best represent the voice of our members. We also encourage you to voice your opinions directly to the Commission on this topic: this can be done online or you can provide them orally (in-person or on the phone) at the next meeting of the Climate committee, which is likely to happen in late January 2023. For this and all other meetings of the Pinelands Commission, a time is reserved at the end of the meeting for members of the public to give any comments.
You can reach out to me by email email@example.com or by phone 609-859-8860 ext. 122.