Hammonton’s Jack Tomasello has been a hunter most of his life and, during hikes through the Pinelands, he has seen a lot of fox grapes growing wild.
“I’ve been farming 35 years,” said the third-generation winery owner. “I know what I’m looking at.”
When he bought about an acre of low-lying property a few years ago, near the 70 acres of varietal grapes he and brother Charlie grow, he thought the native New Jersey grapes would fare well there. But the New Jersey Pinelands Commission doesn’t allow forested land to be cleared to grow grapes in Pinelands areas, only cranberries and blueberries, he said.
Tomasello is one of 106 individuals or groups who have asked the Pinelands Commission to make changes in its Comprehensive Management Plan, which governs what can happen in the Pinelands, during the fourth review of the document in its 33-year history.
In his case, he wants wild fox grapes included as Pinelands natives, as cranberries and blueberries are, so farmers have more latitude to grow them. Others have asked for changes in 23 categories, from off-road-vehicle management to landfill closings, how forestry is handled, and threatened- and endangered-species management.
The process began in 2012 and is just now getting to the point where real change will be made. There will be a public hearing on a first set of straightforward amendments, considered “efficiency measures,” on March 26, Pinelands Commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg said.
One amendment would exempt small-scale building additions from needing commission permits, if no additional wastewater is generated. Another would allow a homeowner to start a home-based business without applying to the commission, if no additional development is proposed.
“We found we were reviewing things we really didn’t need to,” Wittenberg said. “If someone wanted to put a business in their home, we’d require a permit. There is no reason for us to do that. There is no change (in the home’s footprint) or environmental impact.”
Pinelands Preservation Alliance Executive Director Carleton Montgomery said plan reviews have historically taken a lot of time, but this one has taken longer than usual.
“The pipeline issue sucked all the air out,” he said of the time and resources commission staff dedicated to the fight over a proposal to allow a natural gas pipeline through 10 miles of preserved forest and 14 miles of Pinelands.
The 22-mile pipeline was proposed by South Jersey Gas to allow the B.L. England coal plant in the Beesleys Point section of Upper Township to convert to a natural gas plant. It would have traveled along the shoulder of existing roadways from Maurice River Township to the plant. Commissioners voted 7-7 on the plan. Eight votes were needed to pass it, and now supporters are looking for other ways to make it happen.
Montgomery’s group isn’t opposed to any of the efficiency measures up for consideration in March, he said, but would like to see more attention paid to substantive issues, such as protecting the water supply in the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer and preventing abuse of Pinelands areas by off-road vehicle users.
Those are two of 10 issues the alliance brought up for the review process.
The management plan does evolve, if slowly.
“During the past 10 years, we have adopted 18 sets of amendments to the Comprehensive Management Plan,” Wittenberg said. The commission has approved many more amendments in its more than 30-year history.
Relatively recent amendments included those to simplify the permitting process for building single-family dwellings, to ban new mining operations in forest areas and to require clustering of residential development in forest and rural development areas, commission spokesman Paul Leakan said.
Wittenberg stressed that the heart of the plan itself cannot change.
“The upfront long-term planning was done in 1979. The land-capability map is the most important thing,” Wittenberg said of the Comprehensive Management Plan’s designation of preservation, forest, agriculture, village, town and growth areas. “The planning horizon is set, and we’re sticking with it. It’s the most successful regional planning entity ever. They worked really hard 30 years ago.”
But there is still “tweaking around the edges” that can be done, she said.
Tomasello may face an uphill battle in convincing the commission to include fox grapes, or labrusca, as Pinelands natives. Commission Chief Scientist John Bunnell wrote a memo in response to Tomasello’s letter, arguing that fox grapes, though native to parts of New Jersey, are naturalized in the reserve rather than native to it.
Dean Polk, the statewide Fruit Integrated Pest Management agent who works out of Rutgers University’s Philip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research near Chatsworth, Burlington County, said Rutgers uses the bloom time of wild grapes in the forests of the Pinelands and elsewhere to help determine when farmers should spray to control the grape berry moth.
When there is a 50 percent bloom in the wild grape species growing in forests, he said, farmers start counting degree days to spray time, since the wild species bloom first.
“The Pinelands is a boundary humans drew that encompasses more than one biotype,” Polk said. “These wild grapes may not grow very well in high pH, high water-table areas,” but do grow well in upland areas of the Pinelands and elsewhere.
“I’ve been on Jack’s farm, and there are plenty of hardwoods,” Polk said. “In hardwood areas, you can’t avoid native grapes,” Polk said.
Leakan said requests will continue to be discussed at Plan Review Committee meetings. The next will be held after the regular Pinelands Commission meeting, rescheduled from Feb. 14 to Feb. 21 at 9:30 a.m.
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