Policy Notes: May 2023
From [Landfill] Rags to [Solar Farm] Riches. ‘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 YehJune 12, 2023
As government subsidies for solar farms have been rolling out, there has been rising interest in covering old landfills in the Pinelands with solar panels. The Pinelands Commission has been explicitly encouraging this through CMP amendments that became effective in 2012 that limited the siting of ‘principal use’ solar installations (think large plots of land dedicated to just solar panels, does not include rooftop/parking installations or small arrays that support agricultural operations) to disturbed lands associated with closed landfills, hazardous waste sites, and resource extraction sites that are exempt from restoration requirements of the CMP.
Landfills have not been permitted in the Preservation and Protection areas of the Pinelands since 1981 (with one exception* in Woodbine Township which is continuing to operate under New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) oversight), but the region is still dealing with the legacy of landfills that were closed shortly after the passage of the Pinelands Protection Act. Although they have not been receiving new deliveries of waste for decades, many have yet to be fully closed. While the decision to close a landfill is not itself controversial, the way that it is actually done can raise some concerns. Many of these old landfills lack the liner that one would find underneath most modern landfills to limit the flow of liquids out of the landfill. Therefore, the decision to put a permeable or impermeable cap on a landfill can be particularly consequential in the Pinelands, where rain can pass through a landfill and exit underneath into groundwater as part of a ‘leachate plume’. The Commission requires that an impermeable cap be placed on landfills unless the applicant can demonstrate that the leachate plume is not posing a threat to any wetlands (a potential threat to drinking water is handled by another government agency). A now-retired staff member of the Pinelands Commission, Ed Wengrowski, gave a surprisingly interesting presentation on the environmental investigation that is required for the Commission to give its approval of a landfill closure plan (see his slides or the full presentation at the 2/24/23 meeting of the P&I committee). The Commission notes on its website that “Unfortunately, the lack of funding to properly cap landfills in the Pinelands has resulted in very few being closed in accordance with the standards of the CMP.”
With the new incentive to put otherwise-condemned land to productive use as solar farms, a flurry of applications have been coming before the Pinelands Commission in which towns are finalizing their capping plans so they can develop solar farms on them. In the case of Berkeley Township, their application (approved on 1/27/2023) revealed the fact that the town’s public works buildings had many outstanding Pinelands violations that would need to be addressed before the Commission would allow an eventual solar project to move forward. At the 5/12/2023 meeting, the Commission voted to approve the capping plans for one such landfill in Woodbine Township, which has been closed since 1986—note that this is different from the exception* described in the previous paragraph, which continues to operate as the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority.
Three sets of potential issues had to be addressed to get the application to this point, two of which concerned wetlands: Do wetlands that form on top of a landfill as a result of improper grading count as wetlands that the Commission should protect? And would the leachate plume from the proposed permeable cap affect nearby wetlands? The answer to both of these was ‘no’, as determined by Commission staff, so the application was clear on those fronts. The final question was a bit more complicated: would capping this landfill—where certain threatened and endangered (T&E) animals have been known to be present—cause irreversible damage to critical habitat for these species? With visual surveys for T&E species spanning back to 2008, the Commission ruled out the possibility that the landfill count be considered critical habitat for either Barred Owl or the Northern Pine Snake. According to tracking studies, it turns out that the snakes have been thriving in the neighboring airport runways and fields, but spend less than 1% of their time on the landfill itself. To learn more about the way that the Pinelands Commission and others can track the movement of snakes with radio-transmitters, check out this video. Having cleared this final hurdle, the Commission unanimously agreed to approve the landfill capping plan (with the exception of one recusal (Commissioner Pikolycky is also the mayor of Woodbine). This is destined to become a community solar project (learn more about the program here), which will require an additional application and review process at the Pinelands Commission.
More Warehouse Redevelopment…
Following this vote, another major item was approved, but with much less agreement among the Commissioners: to certify an ordinance in Monroe township that would approve the “Hexa Redevelopment Plan”. The plot of land in question spans both Regional Growth Area (RGA) and a Rural Development Area (RDA), which was originally zoned for no less than 400 housing units, but has failed to attract any sustained interest from potential developers to actually build on the property for years. In line with the recent trend described in a previous post,
The new redevelopment option would allow for a warehouse to be built on the property instead, and would carry a PDC redemption requirement: see a recent post explaining this trend of applying PDC obligations to non-residential uses: “Changes on the Horizon for the Pinelands Development Credit (PDC) Program?” Although potential PDC issues were addressed by this arrangement (which is expected to bring in over $1.5 to the program), many of the Commissioners still seemed uncomfortable with the idea of approving more poorly-sited warehouses in the Pinelands. Commissioner Asselta raised concerns about adding more traffic to the already-congested route 322, but Commissioner Mauriello expressed confidence that the NJDOT would address any traffic concerns as part of their approval process.
Commissioner Asselta then asked if there was any indication that the town’s residents truly wanted another warehouse: do we know if public comments were generally supportive or not? In response to this, PPA’s Policy Director Heidi Yeh shared that residents are typically unaware when these kinds of ordinances are passed by their town government. Since there is no requirement to notify residents living within 200’ of an affected property, towns are able to consider and pass ordinances under the radar of most residents. By the time residents find out, it is typically too late to intervene in a meaningful way. A builder simply needs to follow the rules that have been set for that property—which they may have even had a hand in writing themselves—in order to be given automatic ‘by right’ approval of their project. This is what happened in this exact town last year, albeit on a property that is outside the jurisdiction of the Pinelands Commission. Therefore, the true opinion of residents will not be reflected in the record of public comments submitted to either the town or the Commission. We likely will not know the full measure of their displeasure with a new warehouse until the town is in the final stages of approving the plan, at which point it is too late to intervene if the developer does not ask for too many ‘variances’. Since the Pinelands Commission is not empowered to make decisions based on external impacts like traffic, most of the public comments received by concerned residents focused on the tree removal and threat to wetlands that the Commission does have the power to regulate. Given the combination of these concerns, Commissioners Lettman and Wallner voted ‘nay’ and Commissioners Asselta and Irick abstained, but the remainder voted to approve the redevelopment ordinance.
This discussion underscores the importance of staying informed about what is happening in your town’s planning board, zoning board, and town council meetings. PPA tries to empower residents with the tools that they need to monitor and resist harmful development projects through our Pinelands Community Network. You can also learn more about the specific problems posed by warehouses in New Jersey through a great webinar series hosted by the NJ League of Conservation Voters; check out past installments on YouTube, including the most recent one which featured PPA’s own Jason Howell!
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