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CMP Summary

A Million Acres
Pinelands Legislation
Management Areas
Pinelands Development Credits
Environmental Standards & Standards That Apply To Specific Types Of Activities
Local Implementation
Development Review


The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, or CMP, contains the rules that guide land-use, development and natural resource protection programs in the state Pinelands Area.

The CMP implements, and is an exercise of, the powers granted to the Pinelands Commission by the 1979 New Jersey Pinelands Protection Act and the Federal National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978.


A Million Acres

In the center of America's most populous region lies over a million acres of forests, farms, and scenic towns -- the New Jersey Pinelands.

The Pinelands is a patchwork of pine oak forests, tea-colored streams and rivers, spacious farms, crossroad hamlets, and small towns stretched across southern New Jersey. In the country's early years it had been a place where fortunes were made from lumber, iron and glass. But the early industries died out, and as the state's major roads bypassed the area, the "Pine Barrens" gradually became known as a remote part of New Jersey abounding in local legends like the "Jersey Devil".

By the end of the 1960's, as the full weight of postwar urban sprawl came to bear on other parts of New Jersey, the path of Pinelands history forked again. Would the Pinelands become the locale of grandiose development projects, such as a jetport and a city of a quarter million, or would the region's value come to be based on its open spaces, natural features, and traditional lifestyles, which uncontrolled development would damage or obliterate?

It took years of study and debate before the choice was made. But gradually the realization set in that the Pinelands was an environmental asset of national and international importance, deserving safeguards to divert the flow of growth from metropolitan Philadelphia, northern New Jersey, and New York. Nearby Atlantic City's casino gambling boom crystallized awareness of the need for Pinelands development controls.


Pinelands Legislation

The solution could not have been as simple as an overall building ban or a government purchase of all the land. The region was too large and too ingrained with the patterns of 300 years of human use and habitation. So in 1978 Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve, the country's first. The Reserve was to be a place where governments at every level -- from Washington down to local planning boards -- could help shape the Pinelands' future in keeping with some basic guidelines. The state was to take the lead in evaluating the Pinelands' resources and planning how best to balance their protection with new development. As provided in the federal law, Governor Brendan T. Byrne established the Pinelands Commission by executive order on February 8, 1979 and gave it responsibility for these tasks. The Pinelands Commission consists of fifteen members. Seven are appointed by the Governor, and one is appointed by each of the seven counties within the Pinelands. One member is appointed by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Governor Byrne with Pinelands Commission staffThe New Jersey Legislature, at Governor Byrne's request, supplemented the federal law by passing the Pinelands Protection Act in June, 1979. The Act affirmed the temporary limitations on development that the Governor had put into effect while a plan to protect the Pinelands was being created. It also established a requirement that county and municipal master plans and land use ordinances be brought into conformance with the Comprehensive Management Plan that the Commission was developing.

The boundaries of the Pinelands National Reserve and the Pinelands Area, as defined by the state legislation, differ somewhat. The Reserve, totaling 1.1 million acres, includes land east of the Garden State Parkway and to the south bordering Delaware Bay, which is omitted from the 938,000 acre state Pinelands Area. The two jurisdictions together cover all or parts of 56 municipalities spread across seven counties -- Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Ocean.

The state law makes another important distinction between the remote interior of the Pines and the surrounding portions. Development is to be highly regulated in the Preservation Area, which comprises approximately 39% of the Pinelands Area and encompasses the largest tracts of relatively unbroken forest and most of the economically vital berry industry. The larger surrounding area, known as the Protection Area, contains a mix of valuable environmental features, farmland, hamlets, subdivisions, and towns, making the Commission's task there more complex.

The Commission was originally given until August 8, 1980 to adopt the Plan, but the Legislature extended the time allowed to finish the Protection Area portion by four months. The Plan was thus adopted in two phases. The Preservation Area part was approved by the Commission on August 8, 1980 and took effect on September 23, 1980, following Governor Byrne's approval. The Protection Area Plan was adopted on November 21, 1980 and became effective under state law on January 14, 1981. This final version also constituted the Comprehensive Management Plan for the entire Pinelands National Reserve. It was approved by Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus on January 16, 1981 and was sent to Congress for the required 90 day review.



As prescribed in Section 502 of the National Parks and Recreation Act, the federal government's primary roles in the Pinelands protection effort are to provide money for public land acquisition and to monitor the implementation of the plan. The federal law originally authorized $26 million for land acquisition and planning for the Pinelands. However, a cornerstone of the National Reserve concept was that public land acquisitions cannot guarantee sufficient protection for the Pinelands unless accompanied by regulatory measures. Still, government purchase was sometimes recognized as the best way to keep particularly sensitive parcels free of development. The Commission proposed in the Plan that the state acquire about 100,000 acres in the Pinelands, adding to the then current total of 265,000 acres of publicly owned open space in the Pinelands. The estimated cost of that program was $81 million, which would be obtained from various federal and state sources. Interior Secretary Andrus approved the first major federal acquisition expenditure -- $8.25 million for 11,000 acres in Ocean County's environmentally critical Cedar Creek watershed -- at the same time that he approved the Plan. As of June 30, 2021, 51 percent of the Pinelands Area (480,500 acres) has been permanently protected.

Permanently protected land in the PinelandsIf the Pinelands had been an uninhabited wilderness under no pressure for development, it might have been feasible for the government to buy the entire area outright. But that was not the case in southern New Jersey in the 1980's. Because of its proximity to Philadelphia, New York, and Atlantic City, the Pinelands' perimeter was quickly becoming attractive real estate. The forested core was immune from that kind of development pressure for the time being, but it was also the bastion of the cranberry and blueberry farms, whose thriving operations the government had no reason to acquire. Making a wholesale government purchase even more impractical was the history of private land ownership in the Pines, with many families tracing their occupancy back a century or more. Then there are the large and small towns that dot the region from end to end. Although great swaths of the Pinelands have escaped the typical effects of 20th century progress, making them a refuge for scores of endangered plants and animals, the Pines are in no sense really wild. Another tactic besides outright purchase was needed to carry out the public desire to save this last great semi-wilderness in the northeast megalopolis.

The answer lay in the Commission's planning program. A precept that gave rise to the Commission was that the Pinelands could be protected primarily within the existing framework of governmental authority if a regional perspective could be attained. The Commission's essential tasks were to supply that perspective and create a means of translating it into local master plans and zoning codes.

Assuming that the Pinelands could not become a national park, it had to be decided which pieces of the whole ought to be preserved just as they were and which pieces could be allowed to change. The factors had to be weighed on a regional scale, not simply as they appeared when each municipality tried to consider its case alone. The state act furnished a starting point from which those judgments could be made by dividing the Pinelands into Preservation and Protection Areas. In calling for a Comprehensive Management Plan to be prepared, both the state and federal acts also specified the types of information that had to be assembled to justify more detailed decisions about future land use. So, as the Commission began to function at full speed, its first major effort was to collect and analyze that information.

All the resources of the Pinelands -- the vast and priceless water reservoir beneath the sandy soil, the forests, plants, animals, farms, historic sites, and the people who give the region its distinctive culture -- had to be studied and appraised. Experts studied the Cohansey and Kirkwood aquifers, which contain a potable water supply estimated at over 17 trillion gallons. They documented the 580 native plant species, including 54 classified as threatened or endangered, and the 299 kinds of birds, 91 fish, 59 reptiles and amphibians, and 39 mammals found in the Pinelands. They catalogued over 1,000 known prehistoric archaeological sites and the crumbled ruins of the vanished iron and glass industries. And they interviewed hundreds of Pinelands residents to find out what they valued most about the region and what they thought the future of the region should be.

Gradually the picture emerged of a Pinelands region that could logically be divided into eight areas of different land use capability. The delineation of these areas, and the allocation among them of mandatory and optional land uses subject to environmental standards, became a central feature of the Commission's Plan.


Management Areas

The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan establishes nine land use management areas with goals, objectives, development intensities and permitted uses for each. The boundaries of these management areas are displayed on the Pinelands Land Capability Map. They are implemented through local zoning that must conform with Pinelands land use standards.


Pinelands Development Credits

As development is channeled into growth areas, land values there are expected to rise. On the other hand, the Commission has found it necessary to limit residential development in environmentally sensitive parts of the Pinelands, restricting development opportunities which landowners there may have had before. The Plan includes an innovative program known as Pinelands Development Credits (PDCs). The program that is designed to reconcile these situations while enhancing the overall Pinelands protection effort. The program works by allocating development credits to landowners in the Preservation Area District, Agricultural Production Areas, and Special Agricultural Production Areas. The credits can be purchased by developers owning land in Regional Growth Areas and used to increase the densities at which they can build. A landowner selling credits retains title to the land and is allowed to continue using it for any non-residential use authorized by the Plan. This landowner is required to enter into a deed restriction that would bind future owners to those same uses. The Pinelands Development Credit program is designed to transfer some of the benefits of increased land values in growth areas back into areas where growth is limited. It will also help guarantee that appropriate land uses are observed and encourage more concentrated development where it can be accommodated. As of June 2021, 55,951 acres have been permanently preserved through the PDC program.

Sales of credits take place on the open market like any real estate transaction. In 1985, the state created a Pinelands Development Credit Bank that can buy and sell credits, guarantee loans using credits for collateral, and maintain a registry of credit owners and purchasers. In 2011, the Pinelands Commission assumed responsibility for the administration of the Bank, although the PDC Bank Board itself remains a separate entity.

When credits are transferred to a Regional Growth Area, each credit entitles the owner to build four additional housing units. Municipalities are required to allow for the use of credits in their land use regulations. To distribute the bonus housing units evenly and maintain consistent housing types in various neighborhoods, municipalities designate zoning districts in which residential development will be permitted at densities ranging from less than 0.5 dwelling units per acre to 8 dwelling units per acre with credits. Using credits, development can take place at the high end of the density ranges. This could theoretically increase the number of units built in the growth areas by about 50 percent, or roughly 28,000 units. However, the number of credits that will be available for sale will generate only about 17,500 units, according to Commission estimates in 2005. The gap between supply and demand is expected to create a stronger market for the credits.


Environmental Standards & Standards That Apply To Specific Types Of Activities

The creation of different land use areas based on an assessment of environmental resources and pressures was a cornerstone of the Plan. But to make that system work the Commission had to develop standards ensuring that permitted land uses cause the least possible environmental damage. The Plan includes 13 management programs to regulate the impact of development on Pinelands resources. It also contains administrative and legislative recommendations within the program areas. Municipalities need not incorporate all Plan standards verbatim into their local land use regulations as long as the Plan's intent is met. Some are presented merely as guidelines. However, until a municipality brings its master plan and zoning code into conformance with the Plan, the literal standards of the Plan's management programs are administered by the Commission when it reviews proposed development. The regulatory elements of the programs are summarized below:

Wetlands - Different types of wetlands in the Pinelands such as cedar swamps and pitch pine lowlands help reduce pollution, prevent flooding, and serve as the home for many of the region's rare plants and animals. These valuable wetlands are easily spoiled by development. For these reasons, the Pinelands Plan generally prohibits building in wetlands. Regulations in Subchapter 6 of the Pinelands Plan are intended to protect wetlands and prevent the health problems that would occur if septic systems were installed there.

Most types of commercial and residential development are prohibited in wetlands. Exceptions are non-intensive land uses such as forestry (lumbering), agricultural operations compatible with wetlands (such as blueberry and cranberry farming), and certain other low intensity activities. Public improvements, such as roads and utility distribution lines, are permitted to cross wetlands in limited instances.

To prevent environmental degradation, a protective zone around wetlands must be established. Generally, no development is allowed within 300 feet of a wetland. This distance can be reduced if it can be shown that the proposed development will not significantly harm the wetland area.

Vegetation - The vegetation of the Pinelands is both fragile and unique. The Pinelands contains an extraordinary mixture of plants, many of which reach their northern or southern range limits here. There are also 54 plant species in the Pinelands which are in danger of disappearing entirely from New Jersey.

In order to protect populations of these rare plants, development must be designed to avoid irreversible harm to their survival. The Pinelands Plan lists the 54 plant species in the Pinelands which are threatened or endangered.

In addition, the clearing of land is regulated so that the essential character of the Pinelands can be preserved. When more than 1,500 square feet of land is cleared, it must be for an agricultural purpose or necessary to carry out an approved development project. In order to preserve native vegetation, areas cleared for development must be landscaped largely with indigenous plants. The use of native vegetation is also important because many non-native plants require extensive fertilization and chemical application to grow in the Pinelands and their use would contribute substantially to water pollution. Some municipalities which have brought their land use ordinances into conformance with the Pinelands Plan have been allowed to designate certain zones where non-native vegetation is allowed.

Wildlife -The Pinelands National Reserve is home to 299 species of birds, 39 species of mammals, including 4 bats found only during migration, 91 species of fish, 33 species of reptiles, and 26 species of amphibians. Fourty-four species are currently listed as threatened or endangered by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Office of endangered and Nongame Species. Development must be carried out in a manner which does not disturb habitats for significant wildlife populations.

Of the approximately 50 fish and wildlife species in the Pinelands, 34 are in danger of becoming extinct in New Jersey. These threatened and endangered animals are listed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Endangered and Nongame Species. Included in this list of endangered species are the majestic bald eagle and the elusive Pine Barrens treefrog. Particular attention must be devoted to the design of projects so that habitats critical to these species are protected.

Water Resources - The Pinelands is famous for its vast underground water supply. The Cohansey aquifer in the Pinelands contains over 17 trillion gallons of pure water, enough to cover the entire State of New Jersey with ten feet of water. This underground reservoir feeds most the area's streams, supports its agricultural industry, maintains the ecological balance of our coastal estuaries, and provides drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. The high water table and porous, sandy soil of the Pinelands make this aquifer particularly vulnerable to pollution. Pollutants move quickly through this sandy soil into the ground water.

To ensure that this water is not substantially degraded, new sewer plants and on-site septic systems must be designed so that discharges do not raise pollution levels on the property to more than two parts per million nitrate-nitrogen. Nitrate-nitrogen, a primary pollutant in the Pinelands, can cause serious health problems and environmental damage.

In some cases, large lots are required to dilute pollutants from septic systems. In other cases, innovative septic systems must be used to reduce the level of pollutants entering the ground water. Septic systems must be installed above the water table (the point below ground where water begins) to function properly and prevent pathogens from entering the ground water. Construction is generally prohibited in areas where the ground water is within five feet of the surface during the wettest part of the year.

Another major feature of the Pinelands Plan relates to the retention of storm water. Because of the porous soils here, most rainwater percolates through the soil and replenishes the ground water system. However, development normally reduces the amount of water drained into the aquifer unless special measures such as swales or retention basins are used. Unfortunately, storm sewers normally only carry water away and discharge it into a stream. This results in a lowering of the ground water level and introduces pollutants directly into streams. The Pinelands Plan, therefore, requires that increased storm water run off caused by development be retained on site.

There are a number of other standards that are designed to protect the region's water resources (e.g., minimum well depths), prohibitions on the disposal of toxic chemicals, and limits on the exportation of water outside of the Pinelands.

Air Quality - In addition to meeting relevant state and federal air quality standards, large development projects must also be designed to limit carbon monoxide emissions. These additional standards generally apply to residential development projects involving 50 or more homes and other projects which involve 100 or more parking spaces.

Scenic Resources - The scenic beauty of the Pinelands is highly prized by both residents and visitors.

In order to protect the area's scenic attractiveness, stringent limitations have been placed on the size and type of signs allowed in the Preservation Area District and Special Agricultural Production Areas. New warning and safety signs, on-site commercial signs, and off-site signs advertising agricultural roadside stands are permitted in the Pinelands. The erection of new off-site billboards is prohibited in all areas of the Pinelands. Other off-site commercial advertising signs, commonly referred to as billboards, are permitted only in Regional Growth Areas and Pinelands Towns upon a demonstration that an existing billboard in a more conservation-oriented management area has been removed.

Within the Preservation Area District, Forest Areas, and Rural Development Areas, there is a general requirement that buildings be set back 200 feet from major public roads. This distance may be reduced if the set back is constrained by environmental or other physical considerations, or if an applicant can demonstrate that surrounding development is set back less than 200 feet. There are also nineteen scenic rivers in the Pinelands along which proposed development must be screened.

Most new utility lines must be placed underground, and areas where more than 10 motor vehicles are stored (e.g., junkyards, car dealerships) must be screened from nearby homes and public roads in the Preservation Area District, Forest Areas, and Rural Development Areas.

Fire - The Pinelands is one of the most fire prone areas in the United States. Every year portions of the Pines are swept up in wildfires. While these fires are important for the area's ecology, they also pose a significant threat to life and property.

The Pinelands Plan requires certain preventive measures to minimize the danger posed by these wildfires. These measures include maintaining "fuel breaks" around homes and other buildings and road access requirements. The type of vegetation in the area determines whether a site is a low, moderate, high, or extreme fire hazard area.

Historic Resources - The Pinelands has a rich cultural and historic heritage. The area was populated by Indians long before European colonization took place. The physical remains of the historic and prehistoric past need to be protected.

There are two general procedures contained in the Pinelands Plan to accomplish this. For known sites that are widely recognized for their historic import (e.g., those sites listed in the National or State Register of Historic Places), proposed changes in the character of those sites must be carefully reviewed. A "Certificate of Appropriateness" is issued by the Commission if the proposed changes are found to be warranted. In towns which have already had their plans and ordinances certified by the Commission, the town conducts this review.

There is also a general requirement applicable to all "major" development applications (generally five or more dwelling units and commercial establishments) and other, smaller projects located in a historic settlement (village or town) in the Pinelands. To find out if any significant historic or prehistoric resources are present on a development site, a cultural resource survey must be completed by a qualified professional prior to the start of construction. The requirement may be waived if there is little or no likelihood of any historic or prehistoric remains on the site. When this survey discloses the presence of important historic resources, a "Certificate of Appropriateness" must be issued before the development project can proceed.

Standards That Apply To Specific Types Of Activities

Forestry - The growing and harvesting of timber is an economically valuable industry in the Pinelands. If done properly, timber harvesting can avoid substantial environmental harm while promoting the regeneration of commercially valuable trees.

Anyone who wishes to cut timber for commercial purposes in the Pinelands Area must obtain a forestry permit from the municipality in which the property is located. Proper silvicultural practices for harvesting and forest regeneration must be used, and a forestry management plan must be prepared. This plan must also be reviewed by the New Jersey Bureau of Forest Management. To ensure that the area is properly restored, municipalities may require that a performance guarantee in the form of a financial surety be posted by the property owner.

Agriculture - Agriculture is not only a valuable industry in the Pinelands -- it contributes significantly to the unique character of the region. The blueberry and cranberry industry's dependence on large quantities of pure water has greatly contributed to the ecological stability of the region. Agricultural-related development is generally exempt from Pinelands Commission review.

However, farming operations must be carried out in an environmentally sensitive manner. The recommended agricultural management practices prepared by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the Soil Conservation Service, and the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station must be followed where appropriate. In designated Agricultural Production Areas of the Pinelands, farming operations are exempted from "nuisance" ordinances which inhibit efficient crop production.

So that agricultural operations do not increase water quality problems in identified trouble spots, resource conservation plans must be prepared (normally by the Soil Conservation District if the farmer wishes) for farms in these areas.

Resource Extraction - The commercial mining of sand, gravel, clay, and ilmenite is permitted in the Pinelands. However, since resource extraction significantly alters the landscape and can lower water quality and disrupt drainage patterns, mining operations must be carefully conducted.

The Pinelands Plan prohibits new mining operations in the Preservation Area District , Agricultural Production Areas, Forest Area and Special Agricultural Production Areas. Existing operations in these areas are permitted to continue, subject to strict limitations. New mining operations may be located in other parts of the Pinelands. The Pinelands Plan requires that these mining areas be buffered from adjacent properties. Mining must be conducted in a logical sequence, harm to water resources off the site must be minimized and the site must be restored once mining is complete.

Waste Management - Due to the fragile nature of the Pinelands environment, new landfills are prohibited and other types of waste management facilities are generally limited to the more growth-oriented areas of the Pinelands (Regional Growth Areas and Pinelands Towns). Existing landfills in the Pinelands were phased out by 1990. Waste generated outside the Pinelands cannot be disposed here unless it is from a county which has at least half of its area within the Pinelands National Reserve.

Recreation - Certain controls have been placed on recreation activities to ensure that the environment is not severely harmed.

Motor boats in excess of 10 horsepower are not permitted in state waters in the Pinelands except in certain downstream areas of the Mullica and Wading Rivers. Limitations also exist on the use of motor vehicles on state lands. The Pinelands Commission must also review route maps for organized off-road vehicle events.

Recreation areas must be accessible to handicapped persons and bicycling facilities must be provided in conjunction with public roads.


Local Implementation

The 1979 Pinelands Protection Act envisioned that local governments will be primarily responsible for implementing the Plan. To attain that degree of local involvement and responsibility, the Act set forth a procedure under which county and municipal master plans and land use ordinances are made consistent with the Plan. While some of the Plan's provisions are mandatory, such as the density limitations and the requirement that growth areas accept development credits, many other aspects are intended to give municipalities resource management goals to work toward as they revise their land use regulations. The specific means chosen to meet those goals are open to negotiation between the Commission and the local government. If a municipality does not revise its plan and ordinances as required by the Pinelands Protection Act, the Commission is required by law to enforce the Plan's minimum standards verbatim. A municipality is able to exercise more flexibility in applying the Plan to local conditions by participating in the conformance process. At this time, all 7 counties and all 53 Pinelands Area municipalities have completed this plan and ordinance revision process.

Once a county or municipality revises its plans and ordinances, the Commission's executive director holds a public hearing and submits a recommendation to the full Pinelands Commission. The Commission may either certify the plans and ordinances as being in conformance with the Plan, certify them with conditions, or disapprove them and indicate the necessary changes.


Development Review

Probably the most significant authority granted to the Commission under the Pinelands Protection Act is the power to review proposed development and to disapprove projects which fail to meet its standards. During the development of the Plan, the Commission exercised that power alone. The legislation provides that local governments that bring their regulations into conformance with the Plan regain primary responsibility for approving or denying development applications. The Commission is given the power to review local actions to make sure the Plan's intent is carried out.

Anyone who wants to undertake any form of development as defined by the Plan must file an application with both the Commission and municipality. Applications are first reviewed by Commission staff to determine whether they are complete. Once the Commission has reviewed a project, the normal municipal review process begins. Municipal authorities are required to notify the Commission when they are scheduled to consider an application and when it receives preliminary or final local approval. These local approvals are then subject to Commission review to ensure that they are consistent with the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.

The Commission also has the authority to grant waivers from strict compliance with the Plan for reasons of extraordinary hardship or compelling public need. The Commission also issues binding letters interpreting any of the Plan's provisions.

If you desire further information regarding the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, or desire a copy of land use regulations currently in effect, please feel free to contact the Pinelands Commission by writing our public programs office at the address below.

The Pinelands Commission
P.O. Box 359
New Lisbon, New Jersey 08064
Voice: 609-894-7300
Fax: 609-894-7330