DEP turns down plan for massive development in Pinelands

 Parker Preserve area in the Pinelands. (Photo courtesy of Pinelands Preservation Alliance)

Parker Preserve area in the Pinelands. (Photo courtesy of Pinelands Preservation Alliance)

The state Department of Environmental Protection has rejected a plan to build a massive housing and commercial project on 930 acres in the Pinelands National Reserve and watershed of Barnegat Bay.

The project in Manchester Township has been enmeshed in controversy for about three decades ever since an even bigger development was proposed on the site.

In denying permits for the latest project, the agency found the development violated stormwater standards and posed threats to threatened and endangered species, like the barred owl, pine barrens tree frog and pinelands corn snake.

The DEP’s decision was released in a 23-page letter last week.

The latest project sought coastal development and wetlands permits to build 3,682 housing units and about 40,000 square feet of commercial space on a parcel long sought for development by Hovsons Inc.

Stiff resistance in the past

“The bigger the development, the greater the harm to Barnegat Bay through contaminated runoff, to the aquifers through pumping for water supply, and to the Pine Barrens habitats that are home to many rare and characteristic animals and plants,’’ said Britta Wenzel, executive director of Save Barnegat Bay.

The site of the project was largely located on an old defunct sand pit in the middle of the Pinelands. After a much larger development met stiff resistance, an agreement was reached with a coalition of environmental groups to scale back the project in exchange for protecting more than 6,000 acres of Pine Barrens habitat.

Hovsons signed the agreement, but never applied for permits consistent with the agreement. Instead, it sought to win approval for bigger developments from the DEP, and others.

In rejecting the project, the state agency found it failed to comply with state stormwater rules and that, as well as increasing traffic in the area, it would have expanded impervious cover in the area.

Threatened by overdevelopment

“We are grateful to the DEP for enforcing these critical natural resource protections especially those where the developer wants to disregard the prior commitments to build a smaller development on this site,’’ said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, one of the groups that signed the agreement.

Others argued the project would have worsened problems in Barnegat Bay, a vital recreational and natural resource threatened by overdevelopment, according to environmentalists.

“This project would have polluted streams, caused flooding on important high-quality streams and forests and now it is stopped,’’ said Jeff Tittel director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

The project has met with opposition from assorted environmental organizations, including the PPA, Save Barnegat Bay, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The struggle is not over,’’ Montgomery said. “The public needs to stay tuned in and be ready to add their voices as well.

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