Policy Notes: March 2023
Land Preservation – a central theme at the Commission in March. 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.
By Heidi YehApril 10, 2023
On March 7, the Pinelands Commission convened a Land Preservation Summit at its headquarters in New Lisbon. While the Commission is not in the business of purchasing land to manage on its own, it does have significant funding available that can be granted to other conservation groups to help with property acquisition. This Pinelands Conservation Fund has been a largely untapped asset, so the summit had the dual purpose of raising awareness about the fund, as well as providing a networking opportunity for major players in this space. Presentations from the NJDEP Green Acres program and Pinelands Conservation Fund highlighted some of the ways that state funding can be leveraged. They also demonstrated tools that can be leveraged to identify pieces of land that should be prioritized for conservation. Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) gets a lot of use out of NJ Conservation Blueprint’s mapping tool, but the Pinelands Interactive Map can also be used to see the different types of permanent land protection restrictions that exist.
Not all land preservation types are created equal. Although the term ‘preserved land’ may evoke an image of pristine forests, this designation can also include active farmland or properties with existing buildings that are not allowed to get any larger.
The map includes five different restriction types:
- Open Space
This refers to protected open spaces and recreation areas for public use. This category can take many forms, including parks, conservation areas, preserves, historic sites, recreational fields, and beaches. The land is protected from development but can be heavily modified and used by humans for other purposes.
- Farmland Preservation
Despite being the garden state, the high value of property puts the persistence of farms in New Jersey at risk. Since developers are able to pay much more for a property than a farmer can, the Farmland Preservation Program provides a few mechanisms to help farmers stay in business while preserving their land. Landowners who want to continue to farm their land can transfer the development rights to an entity like the State Agriculture Development Committee. The land will continue to be used as a farm but is preserved from being changed to another land use.
- PDC Severance *this one is important to understand the next section of this blog post!*
This protection is derived from the Pinelands Development Credit (PDC) Program. This is a market-based conservation program, which is all about supply and demand. The Pinelands Commission requires developers to purchase and redeem PDC’s for certain development to proceed. This maintains demand for PDC’s, as developers must seek a certain number of credits to get their application approved by the Pinelands Commission. Developers must compete for a limited supply of credits. As a result of this competition, the asking price for each credit generally increases, with last year’s sales averaging about $83K per credit. This is up from just ~$35K in 2017, thanks partly to the post-covid housing demand boom. With more money on the line for each credit, this entices more landowners in the core of the Pinelands to contribute to the supply of credits, which they do by giving up their right to build on their land. This effectively preserves the land as open space but doesn’t limit the use or replacement of existing structures.
- Pinelands Application Condition
In some cases where the Pinelands Commission makes an exception to land use rules, an ‘offset’ may be required, whereby the applicant/developer must purchase another plot of land to be set aside for preservation. This model of decentralized land ownership puts the management of wild lands into the hands of individuals who are not necessarily interested in managing the land under their care. A patchwork of properties is not nearly as easy to manage as larger unified properties, such as the Franklin Parker Preserve of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. It is not practical to perform critical forestry practices such as prescribed burns within this mosaic of land ownership. The owners also have little impetus to protect their land from destruction by off-road vehicle users and illegal dumping. These far-flung properties are out of sight, and out of mind. Land in this category is saved from development but is not necessarily being managed well.
- Other Preserved lands
Changes on the Horizon for the Pinelands Development Credit (PDC) Program?
An ordinance came before the Commission from Waterford Township, which includes a provision to require “one quarter (1/4) PDC for every 17,000 square feet of gross floor area” for non-residential development within a Planned Industrial Overlay District. Although this is not the first time that PDC’s have been required for non-residential development, it seems to be part of a developing pattern. Executive Director Susan Grogan started off the March 31 meeting of the Policy & Implementation Committee with a brief presentation on this trend of municipalities seeking more “creative” ways to create demand for PDC’s. Each town with a ‘Regional Growth Area’ is expected to create a certain number of ‘opportunities’ for PDC’s to be redeemed—but the standard practice has been to tie all of these up in properties zoned for residential development. If a town decides that rezoning is necessary—as in the case of Waterford, where almost two decades passed without any solid interest from a developer—then the town needs to find somewhere for the PDC’s to ‘go’. Back when there was more vacant land, the PDC ‘opportunities’ could simply be shifted to other vacant residential zones. In recent years, a growing number of municipalities find themselves in a bind: they want to accommodate the growing number of warehouse proposals being presented to them in unutilized residential zones, but they have less vacant land where PDC ‘opportunities’ can be shifted to.
PPA has been advocating for many years for the Pinelands Commission to make large-scale changes to the PDC program, such as changing the way that obligations are calculated for development. As currently structured, the program requires developers to purchase PDCs as a condition of building at higher densities. This could have the perverse result of encouraging exactly the kind of sprawling development that most harm environmental, scenic, and cultural values. PPA has proposed ideas for leveraging this program to encourage more environmentally-friendly development practices. Including non-residential development in the program would be a positive step forward, in our view. The land in question for the Waterford ordinance was expected to generate over $2.5 million in PDC sales (from 133 PDC rights, or 33.25 credits), effectively funding more land preservation elsewhere—it shouldn’t matter if that money is coming from a residential or non-residential development!
Progress Towards Accessible Trails in the Pinelands
The Commission formally started the process of establishing a new MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the township of Pemberton. An MOU is an agreement between two government bodies, and it is needed in certain Pinelands cases in which a public entity like a municipality requests a significant deviation from the rules for development. In this case, Pemberton Township and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance are seeking permission to build an accessible trail, requiring substantial trail modifications, within a wetlands buffer. DEP’s Fish & Wildlife Department is also involved since part of the trail runs through F&W property. You can learn more about the work that PPA is doing to make nature more accessible on our website. Although the Pinelands Commission often revisits and updates existing MOU’s, this is the first time in many years that the Commission will be establishing a new MOU, a process which could take several months. You can read more about the start of these deliberations at the Commission here.
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