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NJDEP undervalues wetlands in the Pinelands; EELC stops planned Walmart Superstore

Site of proposed Walmart in Pinelands National Reserve between Toms River and Manchester Township.  Photo courtesy of Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Site of proposed Walmart in Pinelands National Reserve between Toms River and Manchester Township.  Photo courtesy of Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

 

On January 30th, in a victory for both environmental advocates and for the New Jersey Pinelands, the New Jersey state appeals court remanded a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) decision which failed to adequately protect a critical wetland habitat in Manchester Township, part of the Pinelands National Reserve.  Aaron Kleinbaum, EELC Executive director calls this a “major win for the appellants, who work to protect the state’s wetlands and resources.”  EELC, representing the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and Save Barnegat Bay in this matter, submitted comments to the NJDEP supporting the preservation of these Pineland wetlands.  Soon after the appeals court decision, the Walmart superstore abandoned its plans.

Environmental advocates went to bat for this exceptional valuable resource, seeking to protect at least two threatened and endangered species that rely on this wetland which was imperiled by a pending development project.  NJDEP violated state wetlands laws when it issued a Letter of Interpretation undervaluing the importance of these protected wetlands.  NJDEP’s actions put the already endangered and threatened Pine Barrens tree frog and Northern pine snake at risk by failing to fully protect the wetlands with an appropriate buffer from pending development pressure. NJDEP itself, after hearing EELC’s compelling legal arguments, implicitly conceded that its failure to provide public notice of the developer’s intentions violated both Constitutional and statutory due process requirements.

A key attribute of the Manchester site is its large buffer zones.  These zones are critically important because they moderate the effects of stormwater runoff, reduce erosion by stabilizing soil, filter solids and nutrients, eliminate toxic substances, and control water level fluctuations. They prevent degradation and reduce impacts of human disturbance on wetland habitats, including trampling, dumped debris, and construction. Overall, buffers are imperative for environmental protection. Additionally, loss of wetlands jeopardizes resident species and habitats. Many threatened and endangered species rely on New Jersey’s wetlands for breeding, roosting, shelter, food, water, and mobility.

In addition to environmental concerns, EELC attorney Raghu Murthy explains that the NJDEP’s actions failed to provide requisite public transparency. By law, agencies must notify the public and give them time to comment when making a decision that affects them. However, Murthy says that in this case “the NJDEP violated its Constitutional and statutory obligation to inform the public about the Letter of Interpretation application” conducting this wetlands classification process out of the public eye.  The agency did not even inform the public of the application until May 2016, after the Letter had been granted.

Fortunately, pressure from the EELC and appellants forced the NJDEP to void the Letter of Interpretation. Now, Murthy says, “the remand gives us the opportunity to demonstrate to the NJDEP that the decision was flawed and must be fixed.” EELC’s clients Pinelands Preservation Alliance and Save Barnegat Bay submitted substantive comments and expert reports to NJDEP, which give the agency additional scientific data and analyses demonstrating that the Manchester Site wetland is exceptionally valuable and requires maximum protection.

At the time that the developer submitted the NJDEP application, it was connected to the proposed construction of a Walmart superstore on the adjacent property. After the Letter of Intention was remanded, Walmart abandoned the proposal in March.

 

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