Pinelands agency trying to ease growing pains

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Pinelands agency trying to ease growing pains


The commission wants to provide relief for the fringe townships that blame it for problems caused by their booming populations.
By Kaitlin Gurney
Inquirer Staff Writer

At nearly a quarter-century old, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission has declared success in protecting a million acres of pristine Pine Barrens land in the most suburbanized state in the country.

But 24 towns on the fringes of the Pinelands say they have borne the burden of that accomplishment, sacrificed to developers and been left to struggle alone in order for more ecologically important land to be preserved.

So now, the Pinelands Commission is taking a new and comprehensive look at the fringe towns' fate, seeking to teach the very communities it once targeted for growth to slow down the pace.

A task force is busy recalculating mandates for how much each town should grow during the next 25 years, with an eye toward making the responsibility for development more equal. A new map with adjusted estimates of how much each town should grow will be released within the year.

Commission members are also drawing up sample ordinances and supporting proposed state legislation that would help stem the tide of new houses headed for the Pine Barrens' growth areas.

Since 1981, the largest share of Pinelands growth has been funneled to Egg Harbor, Hamilton and Galloway, three Atlantic County townships in the shadow of the casino industry. During the 1990s, the towns grew by 25 percent, 28 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

Egg Harbor Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough blames the agency for nearly all of the problems in his town of 30,600: The traffic clogging newly paved streets. Trailers outside schools built just a year ago. Houses, in every stage of construction, where pitch-pine forests once stood.

A year, even just a few months, of reduced construction would be a godsend, said McCullough, perhaps the commission's most vocal critic.

Hamilton Administrator Ed Perugini is also encouraged by the commission's change of direction.

After 23 years of "sitting in an office and deciding where growth should go, the commission is finally coming out to see how it's playing out in the real world," said Perugini. His township, at just 9,000 residents in 1980, now has 20,500.

The Pinelands Commission isn't prepared to be the scapegoat for all of the growth-area mess, however. Towns such as Egg Harbor had asked to be left alone, and then failed to plan for growth they knew was around the corner, officials say.

Yet, the time has come to get more involved.

"If people feel we share responsibility for the problems, we're willing to accept that," said John Stokes, named Pinelands Commission executive director in April. "I think the Pinelands plan has been a great success, but I'm the last person to say it's perfect.

"This review [of the Pinelands rules] signals the commission's interest in helping towns help themselves. We're still trying not to micromanage the towns - if a town doesn't want to be helped, there's not much we can do."

Carleton Montgomery of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a watchdog group, said the commission was wise to take a new approach because towns would blame the agency for any problems, regardless.

"The commission isn't going to help a town fight development that the Pinelands plan permits, but they will help the towns plan for that development, using clustering, town centers, open space - the basic smart-growth tools that so many of the regional growth areas have been way behind the curve on," Montgomery said.

The changes will be made under the watchful eye of builders' groups, worried that the commission may be backing out of their million-acre deal to direct dense development to regional growth areas in exchange for preserving land.

"They've been slowly reducing the numbers of homes in the growth areas over the years, and we're concerned a revision to the Pinelands master plan will reduce them even further," said John Hooper, president of the Builders League of South Jersey. "The towns were given a rough deal, no question. But they have to live up to it, or we're not going to have enough housing, and the housing we do have will be very expensive."

State Sen. William Gormley (R., Atlantic) remains skeptical that changes will ever be implemented. The plans for the regional growth areas announced last month are "just themes, not meat and potatoes," he noted.

"I've told each governor since [Brendan] Byrne, until I was blue in the face, that these towns were saddled with too much growth. Trees have been ripped up all over Atlantic County in order to preserve other trees," Gormley said. "We don't need commission resolutions, we need an executive order from the governor. That's the way the Pinelands was created."

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Gov. Byrne established the Pinelands Commission by executive order in 1979, and the fledgling commission divided its land into preservation areas and regional growth areas. In addition to accommodating growth areas around the nascent casino industry, townships such as Winslow, Evesham and Medford were included in the growth category to accommodate the spread of Philadelphia suburbs.

Those towns tend to have less animosity toward Pinelands officials, but they, too, have struggled, said Winslow Mayor Sue Ann Metzner. Negotiations with the Pinelands Commission move at a "painfully slow" pace - it took 10 years to agree on new zoning for Route 73 and three to decide where a new sewer system would be located, she said.

And the commission, mindful of the housing quota it promised the builders more than 20 years ago, always insists on residential growth, rather than commercial, she said.

"They tie our hands in many ways," Metzner said. "Our relationship has certainly not been adversarial, but we have different, often opposite, goals."

The Pinelands Commission will again take Atlantic City's and Philadelphia's housing markets into account when it recalculates each town's share of future growth, Stokes said, and not try to "accommodate casino-industry expansion deep in Cumberland County."

Other initiatives may take more time. Pinelands officials have signaled their support for timed-growth legislation and impact fees levied on builders, two methods to control sprawl proposed by the McGreevey administration. Commission Chairman Jim Florio has lobbied federal lawmakers for money for sewer and water systems and open-space preservation in the growth areas; the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $1 million for the area in July.

Ideally, Stokes said, each growth town would get the individual attention that Hamilton and Winslow Townships received. Through a year-old pilot plan known as the Pinelands Excellence Program, planners from Philadelphia and Florida were hired with a $187,000 grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to help township officials develop a new master plan.

In Hamilton Township, for example, town leaders are using Pinelands ordinances to set aside a large swath of land until sewers, schools and roads are planned. Stokes said commission staff would draw up similar ordinances for other towns to follow.

Perugini believes that officials didn't realize the burden on growth areas until they saw the construction, traffic and utility problems in Hamilton firsthand.

"I think it was a real eye-opener for them," he said. "We showed them the burdens they've put on us and they had an epiphany. I think this review shows they now realize that growth can't be thrown onto a community without some sort of help. This has to be a partnership, not a dictatorship, and I think we're getting there."

Resentment runs deep in Egg Harbor, too, McCullough says, but residents there are also willing to change.

"The commission has had to force us into compliance with their regulations for years," he said. "But if they want to help us catch our breath, maybe we can talk."