Policy Notes: June 2023
Things have been quiet [at the Pinelands Commission]… a little too quiet [at the Pinelands Municipal Council]. ‘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.
A Quiet Month at the Commission
With no Climate Committee meeting on the books and the unexplained cancellation of the usual Policy & Implementation Committee meeting, the only major meeting that occurred last month was the regular Commission meeting on June 9. A slew of 26 ordinances were certified by the Commission, almost all of which were simply to adopt the new Pinelands stormwater management rules.
One noteworthy happening is that the Forestry Service of the NJDEP returned the requested revisions to the Allen & Oswego Road forestry plan in the Bass River State Forest. You can read more about the original approval of this application on our blog. The changes include adjustments to forest thinning plans that would protect existing snake sites, as well as modifications to allow uses of herbicides. The changes were deemed satisfactory by Pinelands Commission staff, as well as by PPA and NJ Conservation Foundation staff who reviewed the plans.
Related to the topic of fire-fighting infrastructure, Commissioner Irick brought up the need for wells to be consistently approved in conjunction with fire breaks. He noted that firefighters experience significant challenges when trying to fight fires if they are unable to pump water from established wells, which limits the actual functionality of these fire breaks.
The Pinelands Commission is the proud new owner of two plug-in hybrid Jeep Wranglers. After their first request for a quote returned no offers, a second attempt was made that was successful. Although it would have been ideal to make the transition directly to fully electric vehicles, as expressed by Commissioner Lohbauer and PPA staff on multiple occasions, it apparently proved too difficult to find affordable EV’s that would meet the needs of the Commission’s science team in the current market. Although EV’s typically offer enough range to drive the entire perimeter of the Pinelands on a single charge, there also seemed to be significant range anxiety when considering the lack of charging options available in the remote locations where the science team conducts their fieldwork. Hopefully, by the time that the need arises to replace more vehicles in the fleet, both the Commission and the surrounding communities will be better equipped with distributed charging capabilities. Commissioner Asselta noted that our collective progress towards this clean energy future is predicated on the continued development of renewable energy resources such as offshore wind, which is facing significant challenges among coastal communities.
Pinelands Municipal Council Watch
Months Since the Council Last Met: 9
After the unexplained cancellation of their November 22, 2022 meeting, we haven’t seen or heard anything from the municipal council. Apparently, there is one person who holds the keys to the kingdom and isn’t available to transfer all of the necessary information to other council members. We don’t even know who remains—not even the Pinelands Commission knows the full list of current council members, since this has gone missing along with all other council information. Although the Pinelands Commission may like to have this situation rectified, its ability to actually assist the council in getting back on its feet is limited, since the Council is supposed to be an independent body. PPA would like to see the municipal council resuscitated and even revitalized to a status that is more vigorous than it was before.
The by-laws mandate that the council at least hold an annual meeting “between the third day and the tenth day of March.” In 2023, this time window came and went without any word from the council, so could it be time to officially declare it as defunct to reconstitute it? April 1st marks the end of the one-year term that the council chairperson, vice-chairperson, secretary, and treasurer are elected to serve, so these positions are technically unfilled. Even if the relevant bank account is clawed back—don’t expect to find much money in it, as many towns have apparently not been paying their dues.
The one meeting that I did get to attend (virtually on 9/27) did provide a glimpse into the ailing condition of the council. The meeting attendance and agenda were sparse. The informational session held by NJDEP on the new MS4 permit quickly became a sounding board for municipal complaints, with little productive discourse. These dynamics have set off a downward spiral: towns don’t view the council as worthwhile—and therefore don’t keep up with attendance or paying their dues—which then limits what the council can do. If the current council has effectively abdicated its responsibilities, what is to prevent Pinelands municipalities from reconstituting a new version of it? Pinelands Municipal Council 2.0 could be a fresh start with modernized procedures that would prevent this breakdown from happening again. If mayors are not motivated to sit on the council, perhaps it would make sense to draw representation from their respective environmental commissions/green teams, etc. By-laws describe that the council was intended to review any changes to the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) and make recommendations on any matters of Commission business. Ideally, the municipal council would provide a forum for direct communication between leaders of Pinelands municipalities and the Pinelands Commission.
Rather than just being a setting for municipalities to receive Commission announcements that could have been an email, the Pinelands Municipal Council could be a forum for productive conversations between municipal leaders. Cooperation and idea-sharing at the township level could be a vital tool for municipalities facing similar challenges in the unique context of the Pinelands. Collaboration like this will only become more important as climate change continues to shift the playing field. A changing world requires new approaches to municipal management—we believe this can be done better, together.