The future of Ocean County, South Jersey, at stake

Candidates for an agency that could change the face of Ocean County and other parts of southern New Jersey for decades were considered before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Governor Phil Murphy’s three nominees for the Pinelands Commission, which manages preservation and development efforts in most of the million-acre Pinelands, are expected to be approved by the state Senate on Monday.

Murphy’s three nominees for the commission are: Theresa Lettman, an Ocean County environmental activist; Laura Matos, managing director of a public relations firm who held various political positions under Murphy and Hillary Clinton in 2016 when Clinton ran for the presidential primary; and Davon McCurry, head of marketing and government affairs for offshore wind energy company Ørsted.

Candidates will make crucial decisions on policies that preserve hundreds of miles of virgin forest and shape construction and development in forest edge communities.

Wharton State Forest.

This federally protected area, the 1.1 million acre Pinelands National Preserve, is a unique biosphere of forests, wetlands, and cranberry and blueberry farms that covers more than 20% of New Jersey. The reserve spans seven New Jersey counties, including Ocean.

“Without the Pinelands Commission and the Pinelands Plan, South Jersey would be nothing like what it is today,” said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting the forest.

Protect fresh water

This wilderness – home to 43 threatened or endangered animal species, according to the commission – also protects the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer system, the water supply for much of southern New Jersey.

Houses of over 700,000 people are also scattered around and throughout the forest.

“People on the (Jersey) Shore should definitely appreciate the Pinelands,” Montgomery said. “All of these vast forests, the 800,000 acres of forest that still exist in the Pinelands, protect the quality of the fresh water that flows into streams and through the aquifer into estuaries. Where you see estuaries. Compromise, as in Barnegat Bay, especially the northern part of Barnegat Bay, is because there is no protection from Pinelands there. “

Environmentalist Theresa Lettman appears in a 2006 Asbury Park Press file photo.

This is why environmentalists say the role of the Pinelands Commission is so important, not only in protecting the Pinelands, but also drinking water and the environment downstream.

“If you care about having large wooded areas in the Pine Barrens and you care about the health of the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer. … If you care about the benefits the forest brings to air quality and recreational opportunities, then you need to care about the Pinelands Commission and how it works, ”Montgomery said.

One of the most powerful roles of the Commission is its management of the Pinelands development credit system. Through it, landowners within the main forest protected area, where almost no construction is allowed, are financially incentivized to sell their development rights and preserve their own land in perpetuity.

Forest edge builders can buy these development credits for the “right” to build new homes in the outer “regional growth areas” of the Pinelands. Regional growth areas are found in areas such as Jackson, Lakehurst, the Whiting section of Manchester, and the communities of Stafford and Barnegat which lie west of the Garden State Parkway.

Another example of the beauty of the Pinelands.

In recent years, home builders in Barnegat and Stafford have been among the biggest buyers of Pinelands development credits, Pinelands Development Credit Bank executive director Susan Grogan told Asbury Park Press in early December.

“The program has been a huge success,” she said. “It did exactly what the commission hoped it would do. It preserved nearly 60,000 acres of land without the use of public funds. That’s it… private funding is changing hands in the private market. “State taxpayer money is not being used here for this program. Everything is privately funded, (and) it makes it easier to grow in the right places.”

The evolution of housing demand

In recent years, as demand for new homes has exploded in New Jersey, landowners in central Pinelands have been paid higher prices to sell their development credits, Grogan said. This is a change from decades ago when the trend in house building was for a few large houses on oversized lots, which brought down the demand for credit.

An undated photo taken in the Pine Barrens.

“20 years ago, 25 years ago, 30 years ago… cities, a lot of them didn’t want to accommodate residential growth,” Grogan said. “It has completely reversed. What we are seeing today are cities begging the commission to allow more residential growth.”

In Ocean County, approximately 45% of the land area is within the Pinelands Commission Comprehensive Management Plan, according to the Ocean County Master Plan. Some are established as regional growth areas, while other parts remain protected forests, wetlands, parks and farms.

Although Grogan claims the credit system is successful, New Jersey builders believe the opposite. Jeff Kolakowski, CEO of the New Jersey Builders Association, said the credit system added “unnecessary costs to housing production” around the Pinelands and did not perform as originally intended.

“Whether you are building a 1,000 square foot apartment or a 10,000 square foot mansion, the price of PDCs (Pinelands Development Credits) is the same for each housing unit, which in turn discourages compact development,” said Kolakowski in an emailed statement. “To further complicate the matter, PDCs are rare and in high demand, which has more than doubled the price of PDCs since last year.”

It’s a concern he shares with environmentalists, who also say new Pinelands Commission candidates must tackle the problem.

“What we want to see is more dense development in the growth areas because it reduces sprawl (suburbs) and has a lower environmental impact,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League. of Conservation Voters. “The existing system actually discourages this type of development, so you have things like a six-acre zoning. The houses are further apart, which means you need longer roads and water and water systems. longer sewers, and you cut more trees. ”

Potosnak wants the rules of Pinelands to favor denser housing surrounded by open spaces.

“We can provide, through the Pinelands Commission, even more incentives by changing the way credit works, that people can get more credit if they do some of these things that we think are best for. environment and in fact better aligned with what … potential homeowners are looking for. “

To do this, the commission needs enough active members on its 15-member board to push through the changes, Potosnak said.

“If we get these three Commissioners to cross the finish line in the next few days… the Pinelands Commission will have the opportunity to obtain the quorum (necessary to vote) and to move forward on some of these initiatives, this which makes economic (and) environmental sense, ”he said.

The state Senate is due to vote on the governor’s nominees on Monday.

Amanda Oglesby is originally from Ocean County and covers the townships of Brick, Barnegat and Lacey as well as the environment. She has worked for the press for over a decade. Contact her at @OglesbyAPP, [email protected] or 732-557-5701.

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