Sweeping changes considered for Pinelands zoning

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Sweeping changes considered for Pinelands zoning


Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/21/04
By KIRK MOORE
STAFF WRITER
PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP -- New homeowners and pine snakes could co-exist in the woods of Jackson and Manchester, according to a plan by a Pinelands Commission task force, which met yesterday to discuss their draft report.

The group will meet again in mid-February to adopt recommendations that may lead to substantial zoning and planning changes across 17,000 acres. Their goal is to protect threatened and endangered species, the rural landscape and water quality in the upper Toms River, said Larry Liggett, a commission planning expert.

"The Pinelands villages in Jackson are starting to take off," with a growing number of building applications filed for properties in Cassville, Legler and Van Hiseville, Liggett told task force members.

To the southeast, development pressure is on around the so-called "golden triangle" at the intersection of routes 571 and 547. Wildlife studies have shown the nearby forest is rich in protected animal and plant species, ranging from the northern pine snake and a number of bird species to obscure wetland plants.

"We're seeing a lot of endangered species along the Toms River, near the Stavola tract and the golf course," Liggett said, referring to the Stavola sand mine and nearby Pine Barrens Golf Club.

In the short term, the task force report recommends zoning changes to convert some village and development zones into forest areas, where only scattered residential development would be allowed. Much of the area's development potential would be shifted southeast, closer to the development sprouting in Manchester, to preserve more deep woods around the Toms River and its Maple Root branch.

Further into the future, there could be some transfer of development into the village areas, and reconsideration of designated regional growth areas where the Pinelands master plan aims to steer most developments.

In all, out of 9,400 acres that are currently not developed, 3,060 acres could be rezoned for less development potential -- removing the possibility of up to 2,600 future homes, according to the draft report.

The most controversial part of those recommendations could be a suggested doubling of wetlands buffer area widths to 600 feet -- a step that would aim to tie together wildlife habitat so animals can move freely with a minimum of conflicts with their new human neighbors.

Jackson Township Planner Richard Ragan said his community's officials will need the scientific studies to back up such a rule, because they are certain a lawsuit would be in the offing. The township is now in the process of preparing master plan changes that would accommodate the conservation plan.

Open-space purchases will be a big part of networking the wildlife areas with woodland corridors, said Alan W. Avery Jr., Ocean County's planning director and vice chairman of the commission.

"The less we spend on litigation and the more we spend on acquisition, the better," he added.

The final draft of recommendations also needs a "relief mechanism" for landowners who find their property enveloped by buffer restrictions, said John Stokes, commission executive director.

Such a rule should allow property owners some use of land in a buffer zone, for example by limiting such tracts to having one house, Stokes said. The goal would be to keep intrusions into wildlife habitat at a minimum, while still allowing some economic use, he said.

While the Pinelands Commission will be asked to endorse the task force's final recommendations, much of the implementation will fall to Jackson and Manchester. Some task force members worried that even widely scattered homes would lead to large areas of forest being cleared for livestock or agriculture, but Ragan pointed out the towns can control tree cutting with their own ordinances.

Other members suggested the final report put more emphasis on protecting water quality in the Toms River. Just a couple of hours before that discussion, another group in northern Ocean County presented another report that stressed open-space protection as a way to save the Metedeconk River as a public water supply.

Stokes said the task force may meet Feb. 13 to discuss a revised report, and meet later in February with the Jackson Township Committee to brief officials on the findings.

Kirk Moore: (732) 557-5728