Don't Ignore this Simple Secret to Success in Developing Pinelands Vacant Land

Updated: Oct 17, 2018


Requesting a pre-application conference with the Pinelands Commission prior to development of a parcel of land is an absolute necessity. The pre-application conference will flag issues, save you time and money and ultimately help you plan the best course of action.

In the movie “My Cousin Vinny”, the character played by Joe Pesci – the five-time bar exam flunky who had never won a case – thought he had to go hunting and “bond” with the prosecutor to get a copy of the file to defend his client. But all he had to do was just ask.

Whether you are a Brooklyn attorney defending a relative on a bogus murder charge in Alabama or hoping to build a house in the New Jersey Pinelands, the state authority is legally obligated to give you most of the information you need to begin your journey.

In the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, under Uniform Procedures, N.J.A.C. 7:50-4.2 provides that an applicant may request an informal conference with the Executive Director prior to submitting a formal application. The ability to hold this conference prior to a formal submission can save you the cost of the application fee ($250.00 per dwelling unit/lot as of October 2018) – should you discover a fatal flaw in the piece of land you hope to develop.

For example, the Multiple Listing Service (the database of listings of real estate used by brokers) recently listed a vacant seven-acre parcel of land as suitable to build a house. A pre-application conference revealed that the owner had sold his development rights to the property. This would have been revealed after filing an application with the Commission, but the fee would have been lost money.

The language of the Comprehensive Management Plan appears formal, but I find that the Conference and the procedure for arranging the Conference to be relaxed. Usually, an email to appinfo@pinelands.nj.gov or a phone call to 609-894-7300 will begin the process. You should provide the following information: your name, address and best telephone number to reach you; block, lot, and municipality of subject property, along with street address; and your plans for the property.

The New Jersey Administrative Code says that you are entitled to a conference with the Executive Director, but you will confer with an Environmental Specialist, most likely the person who will be evaluating and processing your application when it is ready. The Executive Director is the top executive at the Commission, who – truthfully – does not have as much technical experience as the staff members assigned to Regulatory Programs.

The Pinelands Commission encourages applicants to consult local officials first before setting up a pre-application conference. However, be careful with this encouragement. Not all local officials are created equally, meaning some know more than others.

I almost always chose to ignore this “advise”. The Environmental Specialists at the Commission live and breathe this material every day. They are the experts. And they have the resources. Sometimes local officials are spread thin and are charged with a wide variety of responsibilities.

While many pre-application conferences will be conducted over the telephone, the process is far superior than just a call to the Commission. The conference will usually be scheduled two weeks after a request, because the staff member will prepare and research issues. A good specialist will study the file and identify issues. A cold call lacks the benefit of a prepared staff member.

This may sound elementary, but I take notes like I would when my law professor would say, “this will be on the exam”. The conference is your opportunity to peak into the future without spending money. Don’t be caught in the position of forgetting key details, because details matter.

After a well-planned conference, you should be able to answer the following questions:

Is the zoning and management area correct for what I want to build? Are there any wetlands on or near the property? Are there any threatened & endangered animal or plant species issues? Is the seasonal high-water table at least five feet? Are there any recorded restrictions or encumbrances? If the property does not meet standards, am I eligible for a waiver of strict compliance?

After conclusion of the pre-application conference, ask the Environmental Specialist to send you his or her checklist for the conference. This is an internal document that they are required to complete with every conference. It is a summary of all the issues that relate to your property. It does not substitute for good notes on your part. However, this document will form the basis of the review letter after you submit your application.

In summary, do not miss the opportunities afforded by these conferences. It can save you money. Sometimes it will immediately eliminate junk properties. The conference notes you take are important. These notes and the internal checklist will form the diagram for success.

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