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Sunrise in Black Run by Natalie Sutherland

Sunrise in Black Run by Natalie Sutherland

Policy Notes: April 2024

Policy Notes are designed to update the public on the activities of the Pinelands Commission, which have been summarized by Pinelands Preservation Alliance staff who attend all public meetings of the Commission.

May 13, 2024

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Quorum Issues Highlight Need for Gubernatorial Action

It’s the ultimate meeting that could have been an email: getting a group of people together for a meeting, only to find that you can’t get anything done! This past month, a committee of the Pinelands Commission found itself unable to take an official vote due to a lack of quorum. Two regular participants were absent from this particular meeting, and one had to recuse himself from the topic of discussion due to a conflict of interest. As the Governor continues to ignore two vacancies on the Pinelands Commission, instances like this could become increasingly common.

The Pinelands Commission (ideally) has 15 members. Individual Pinelands counties appoint seven, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior appoints one, and the Governor of NJ appoints the remaining seven. Although each serves a term with a set expiration date (see the current list of Commissioners and term expirations here), commissioners typically remain in their roles afterward until replacement or resignation.

Crowd speaking at mic
Crowd speaks at a Pinelands Commission Meeting

Two gubernatorial seats were vacated in January and August of 2022, but the Governor has not made any moves to fill them. Although each gubernatorial appointee only accounts for 1/15 of the full Pinelands Commission, they do tend to be more involved in the committee work that sets the agenda and trajectory of Pinelands policy and commission staff. Despite the two vacancies, the Climate and Policy & Implementation committees are currently composed of 67% and 50% of the governor’s picks, respectively. Having more commissioners available to be members or alternates for these committees helps to prevent quorum issues. Leaving gubernatorial seats open uniquely impacts the work of committees and the important work they do to keep the CMP effective and up-to-date.

Unfortunately, this vacancy rate of 13% is on par with the rest of the boards and commissions in the state, according to a report by the Eagleton Institute of Politics. The problem is widespread, as key decision-makers don’t prioritize this duty highly enough.  

You can help us advocate for a full and diversified Pinelands Commission by asking Governor Murphy to make progress on new nominations ASAP.
You can contact him with the following suggested message: 
“Governor Murphy, the Pinelands Commission has two empty seats that won’t be filled until you take action. We need you to nominate individuals who will be strong environmental advocates and bring a diversity of experiences to the Pinelands Commission, which lags behind the rest of the state’s boards and commissions in both racial and gender diversity. You have the power to shape the Pinelands Commission; please use it and make these nominations ASAP.”

How Does One ‘Redevelop’ a Forest?

A farcical excuse for a ‘redevelopment’ plan has been proposed in Manchester township, that would preserve the site of a former mine while ‘redeveloping’ the neighboring forest. This plan for 224 acres of Pinelands land epitomizes the problems with our current redevelopment laws. Actual redevelopment that revitalizes parcels with checkered pasts in need of demolition and/or remediation are at a disadvantage when builders can develop more easily via deforestation. You can read more about the problem that ‘redevelopment’ has posed to forests in South Jersey in this op-ed.

At the very least, this plan should not be granted the benefits that accompany a redevelopment designation, because developers should not be given incentives to destroy undeveloped forests. The developer was likely advised to avoid the mined area altogether to simplify the approval process. There are threatened & endangered species concerns associated with the former resource extraction site: the patchwork of open fields, sandlots, and trees has created an attractive nesting habitat for snakes. However, a thorough enough study would likely reveal the intact upland forest that is adjacent to the former mines to also be a critical habitat for these snakes. The upland forest should not be sacrificed to compensate for the more apparent limitations of the former extraction site.

When the plan was presented before the P&I Committee this past month, there was great concern among Commissioners about the fact that the environmental commission of Manchester township had expressed its opposition to the plan. Commissioner Lohbauer also brought up the glaring problem that the climate value of trees always seems to be ignored when weighing the pros and cons of different locations for potential development. PPA is advocating that the climate committee implement a no-net-loss of trees policy that would provide a financial disincentive to remove mature trees. You can read more about the current set of priorities that the climate committee is working on in a previous blog post.

Reflecting on the Black Run by CHRIS HOLLINGSWORTH
Reflecting on the Black Run by Chris Hollingsworth

Latest Accessible Trail Proposal Gets Pushback

Accessible trails are on the rise in New Jersey—which is a welcome change for the many NJ residents who benefit from smoother, more stable trail surfaces. They can also include other improvements such as interpretive kiosks that are visible from wheelchairs. The Pinelands Comprehensive Management plan does not currently accommodate these kinds of improvements to trails that are within 300 feet of wetlands; however, proximity to wetlands is exactly what makes many of these trails attractive as scenic destinations! Therefore, parties interested in improving trails need to establish an MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) with the Pinelands Commission before they can even start the typical application process that all other developments must go through.

Most projects presented so far at the Pinelands Commission—such as those in Pemberton and Stafford Townships—have received an overwhelmingly positive reception. The latest such project in Evesham Township, proposing accessibility improvements to the Black Run Preserve, was the first to receive significant pushback. Criticism came from multiple angles, including both commissioners and the public. Comments were still overall supportive, but raised issues with specific aspects of the proposal, such as the implementation of a switchback ramp—and many offered opinions for alternative designs. The only commenter who seemed fully opposed to the plan was a neighbor who did not want to see additional traffic in the area.

Commissioner Doug Wallner (who is a neighboring resident and volunteer at the preserve) raised the question: do we really want to increase access to the most pristine areas of the reserve? This is a notable difference from the projects in Pemberton and Stafford Township that were primarily improving the quality of existing trails; whereas the Evesham project proposes some rerouting of trails through areas that concerned Wallner.

Commission staff clarified that many of the specific points of concern could be worked out at a later date when a full application is submitted to the Commission—at this point, the question is whether or not to prepare an MOA that would make such an application feasible.

You can learn more about PPA’s accessibility work through the Pinelands is for Everyone initiative on our website.

Pole Bridge Forest in Pemberton Township

The fight for the Pole Bridge Forest continues! An important victory was won at the 5/2 Planning Board meeting as plans for an emergency access route through public lands were finally dropped. This is the latest whittling down of the proposed development. It is a win for critical species habitat threatened by the additional ORV activity that we see associated with access routes like this.

Prothonotary Warbler in Pole Bridge Forest by Bryan Strenkowski
Prothonotary Warbler in Pole Bridge Forest by Bryan Strenkowski

Our last major win is finally being codified: the ordinance to repeal the redevelopment plan associated with the Pole Bridge Forest was finally certified by Pinelands Commission staff, as reported in the meeting packet for the commission’s 5/10 meeting. Whenever municipalities in the Pinelands pass ordinances that could impact environmental or land-use policy, they need to be certified by the Pinelands Commission. PC staff review each ordinance to ensure that it is not in conflict with the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.

Read more about our campaign to save this forest from being ‘redeveloped’.

Pinelands Municipal Council Watch
Months since the council last met: 18

No signs of life to report this month.

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