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Pole Bridge Forest

718 acres of undeveloped forest, known as the Pole Bridge Forest in Pemberton, are the target of an egregious ‘redevelopment’ plan.

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Overview

Project description

718 acres of undeveloped forest, known as the Pole Bridge Forest in Pemberton, are the target of an egregious ‘redevelopment’ plan. Despite the presence of wetlands and evidence for several threatened and endangered species (T&E) on these lots, this has been demarcated as a ‘Regional Growth Area’, and therefore is governed by the least restrictive set of standards within the Pinelands National Reserve. By ordinance, this land can hold a maximum of 575 dwelling units and can include recreation areas, parking, offices, a community center, and more. The development proposed as part of the Lakehurst Road redevelopment plan is for age-restricted single-family homes, in which owners must be 55+ years old, but other residents in the home just need to be at least 18 years old. 

Read the September 30th Op-Ed “New Jersey Forests are not in need of redevelopment” in the Courier Post by PPA Policy Director, Heidi Yeh.

Resident concerns

aerial view of pole branch forest
Plans for all phases of the proposed development overlain on a map of the Pole Bridge Forest.

Citizens have voiced concerns regarding their already present strain on emergency responders and worries of empty grocery store shelves in the singular Acme in town. Other worries include sewer lines, becoming a “cookie cutter” town, and more. The developer argues that an age-restricted community like this would bring no/negligible additional burden to the school system (as no children under the age of 18 are allowed to live there) or traffic patterns—but the latter seems to assume that the community is primarily constituted of retirees, although people are increasingly delaying retirement into their 60s and 70s or may have adult children living at home.

Environmental & Social Concerns

Habitat Continuity: The Pole Branch Forest is contiguous with the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, which benefits species that require large ranges, especially to maintain genetic diversity within the population.

Stormwater from impervious coverage: The plan specifies that the maximum building coverage is 35% and impervious coverage of 45%. This would contribute to the flooding on the street and nutrient runoff into nearby freshwater systems.

Wetlands:  This redevelopment area includes 340+ acres of wetlands. The best way to protect these wetlands–and the diversity of wildlife that they support–is to preserve the surrounding forest and water supply. The proposed development pushes right up to the edge of what the Pinelands Commission will allow in proximity to wetlands.

Fire hazard: The question of a secondary egress has been a point of debate: the original proposed location for a secondary access road presented issues for conflict with T&E Species, and the most recent proposal could impinge on wetlands buffers. Although the developer’s attorney has claimed that replacing forest with houses will reduce the region’s risk for wildfire, this is counter to the wildland-urban interface (WUI) theory, developments that bring more buildings in close proximity to forests increases fire risks. Yet the developer has also been arguing for a smaller firebreak, using just 80 feet instead of the 200 feet that is required by the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan when building in fire-prone areas.

Affordable Housing: NJ’s Affordable Housing Laws specify that at least 20% of all “for-sale” homes need to be affordable as well as 15% of all rental homes, but the developer has negotiated a lower percentage and is seeking an exemption from including any units in the first phase of development.

Abuse of redevelopment provisions in the Municipal Land Use Law: Using ‘redevelopment’ to side-step normal planning and zoning board processes to develop land that has never been developed before has become a troubling trend in the Pinelands, and South Jersey overall.

Issue Location Map

Current Status

In 2023, the developer’s attorney made several presentations with various subject matter experts before the Pemberton township planning board and members of the public in attendance.

The developer is in negotiations with the Pinelands Commission as they try to resolve the outstanding concerns that the project raises over threatened and endangered species, and are in the process of performing supplemental surveys. The Pinelands Commission has granted an extension of time for these matters to be reviewed by the NJ Office of Administrative Law until January 2, 2024.

On December 6, 2023, the redevelopment plan for the forest was rescinded, with a 4-1 vote by the Pemberton Township Council to pass ordinance 41-2023. As a result, the township will no longer be able to directly transfer the township-owned parcels to the developer without putting them up for a public bid. Now the underlying zoning—which still allows for some form of senior housing to be built—must be addressed. Now that redevelopment is off the table, we are waiting to see if the developer will try to adapt their plan to the standard development approval process without the guarantee that they can acquire the township-owned parcels. In the meantime, PPA is advocating for changes to the municipal land use law that would close the loophole that has allowed forests to be classified as ‘areas in need of redevelopment’ and we are exploring avenues for preservation of the township-owned parcels. 

Township-Owned Parcels Highlighted In Blue

Protecting contiguous forest areas is one of the most important things we can do for nature, for our environment, and our quality of life. That is why we are helping organize residents and concerned citizens to save this critical forest in the Pines. We want to add your voice and your power to the growing community working to save this special place.

Take Action

Sign the petition to save Pole Bridge Forest!


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Detailed Information and Resources
  • Read more about how development in fire-prone areas of the Pinelands is regulated here.
  • Pinelands Development Credits (PDCs): this redevelopment plan does require the purchase and redemption of PDCs. Ensuring that this financial mechanism for land preservation was maintained as part of this plan was the focus of discussion when the Pinelands Commission was considering whether or not to certify the town’s ordinance.
  • The Local Redevelopment and Housing Law of the MLUL is used to justify their classification of “redevelopment”. The law itself was established in 1992 and has become outdated. For instance, in clause c the law established that land can be “redeveloped” if it is “owned by the municipality, [or] county . . . or [is] unimproved vacant land that has remained so for a period of ten years prior to adoption of the resolution, and that by reason of its location, remoteness, .  . . is not likely to be developed through the instrumentality of private capital”. This is just one part of the act that has become problematic with the influx of environmental awareness and issues in the past three decades. 
  • Summaries of the various Threatened and Endangered (T&E) species surveys:
  • November 2003 T&E Species Survey: This study was conducted in the Pembrooke Club in Pemberton Township with the goal of monitoring the Barred Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, Corn Snake, Northern Pine Snake, Pine Barrens Treefrog, Red-headed Woodpecker, Short-eared Owl, Southern (Cope’s) Gray Treefrog, and Timber Rattlesnake. All of these species listed are either threatened or endangered. There is also a list of flora monitored that range from roots to ferns. The team used a variety of survey methods from trapping surveys of snakes to nocturnal road cruising surveys. In this survey “there were no individuals of any target flora species identified on, or within the vicinity of, the subject site” due to disturbance from vehicle use. Four Northern Pine Snakes were captured and several others were encountered. 
  • August 2003 T&E Species Survey: This survey was located in the same location and specifically investigated the presence of the Pine Barrens Tree Frog (threatened) and the Southern Gray Treefrog (endangered). The team used a calling technique and nocturnal road surveying to collect data for the species. They concluded from their results that there were no Southern gray Treefrogs on-site and that there were vocalizations of Pine Barren Tree Frogs from four sample locations. They were typically heard from the southern half of the Pole Bridge Branch floodplain; this information is important to consider with redevelopment. 
  • November 2004 T&E Species Survey: This study was also conducted in the Pembrooke Club in Pemberton Township with the objective of continuing a snake survey and monitoring Barred Owl nesting. This survey was completed through the use of drift fences and funnel trap sampling, radio tracking, visiting nesting sites, and manual searching in areas with optimal conditions for a specific species. This survey found a pair of Barred Owls, and various species of snakes including three Northern Pine Snakes.
  • July 2006 T&E Species Survey: Completed in the Pembroke Pines, this study aimed to continue the Northern Pine Snake survey by determining the existence of nests or wintering dens on site. This survey was focused on the Northwest sector of the subject site with little previous information on the species. The survey used similar survey methods as the previous study and unfortunately, no snakes were found in this region. 
  • May 2020 T&E Species Survey: Much later in 2020 a survey was completed in the eastern region of Pemberton Township with the goal of discovering Barred Owls. The survey used vocalization techniques along with nesting surveys. Two barred owls were heard on site as a result of the vocalization survey and none were found from the nesting surveys. 
Timeline

2003: Two T&E species surveys of the Pembrooke Club were conducted that found evidence of Northern Pine Snakes and Pine Barrens Tree Frogs.

2004: A T&E species survey of the Pembrooke Club found Barred Owls and Northern Pine Snakes.

2005: Environmental Impact Assessment performed

2006: A T&E species survey in Pembroke Pines found no snakes.

2007: Pemberton Township adopts resolution Z-06-2007 to grant a variance for the location of the connector roadway.

*Like many other development projects, we see a pause in progress after the 2008 financial crisis, with many projects being reactivated a decade or more later with strings of permit extensions that grandfather the projects into older zoning and regulations. In this case, the project changed hands between D.R. Horton and Equity Enterprises. In the shuffle, taxes were not paid on some parcels that have since been repossessed by Pemberton Township. The redevelopment agreement would include the direct sale of these properties back to the developer, side-stepping the requirement for a public auction of the land*

2020: A T&E species survey found evidence of barred owls on the site. 

2021: Major Site Plan Produced

September 9, 2022: Pinelands Commission approved Resolution PC4-22-35 “Issuing an Order to Certify Pemberton Township Ordinance 11-2022, Adopting the Lakehurst Road Redevelopment Plan”

December 13, 2022~150 community members attended a hearing to protest the plan. As a result of this pushback, the plan was not approved at that time—instead, the developer was given the opportunity to break up the project into phases that can be considered individually through a series of presentations by subject matter experts.

2023: A series of planning board meetings have been held at which the developer’s lawyers and consultants have presented on aspects of the proposed development (specific to phase 1).

  • March 27: Economic expert provided testimony and received public comments/questions.
  • May 22: Representative of Ryan Homes presented on the homes proposed to be built. There was insufficient time to receive comments/questions from the public.
  • June 26: Traffic engineer provided testimony and received comments/questions.
  • Septermber 6: The Pinelands Commission issued a letter to the developer, deeming their survey protocols to be ‘insufficient’. The developer is now being required to use additional methods to conduct surveys for threatened & endangered species in both the fall of 2023 and spring of 2024.
  • October 4: The scheduled town council meeting was not allowed to proceed because too many residents showed up to the meeting, exceeding the capacity of the room. The Pole Bridge Forest was not on the official agenda, but residents came with the expectation that they could give public comments pushing to repeal the redevelopment plan.
  • October 18: A resolution was introduced to the Township Council that would repeal the Lakehurst Road Redevelopment Plan
  • November 27: Planning board meeting with continued testimony from the developer’s consultants on traffic, emergency vehicle access, and some aspects of stormwater management.
  • November 29: Pinelands Community Network meeting to be hosted at PPA.
  • December 6: The redevelopment plan for the forest was rescinded, with a 4-1 vote by the Pemberton Township Council to pass ordinance 41-2023.
  • December 7: The development is expected to be on the agenda for this planning board meeting. Experts from Herpetological Associates hired by PPA are expected to testify at this—or a future—meeting.
Pole Bridge Forest Captured by Jon Holcombe

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