Pinelands region faring well in economic picture

Guest Column


The wisest decisions can be the hardest to make. In the late 1970s, state and federal legislators made a very wise, but controversial decision to protect the million-acre Pinelands region in southern New Jersey.

Among other criticisms, some opponents feared that the comprehensive plan to protect the region’s natural, cultural and historic resources would sound the death knell for the economy of Pinelands municipalities.

Now, almost three decades later and with more than half of the Pinelands permanently preserved, it is clear that the fears of economic doom in the Pinelands are unfounded.

In fact, the latest data in a newly released economic report shows the Pinelands area is actually outpacing the non-Pinelands region of southern New Jersey in numerous key economic indicators.

Funded by the National Park Service and administered by the New Jersey Pinelands Commission through the Pinelands Long-Term Economic Monitoring Program, the annual report takes the “temperature” of 47 Pinelands municipalities.

More specifically, the program monitors, collects and analyzes data such as population demographics, property values, economic growth and municipal finances with the goal of evaluating the economy of the Pinelands in an objective and reliable way.

For those who believe that protection of the Pinelands’ unique environment has come at the expense of the region’s economy, consider the following data:

The average residential property tax bill for municipalities in the Pinelands is $688 lower than in municipalities in the non-Pinelands region of South Jersey and $2,307 lower than the state as a whole.

In 2006, the gap in the average residential property tax bill paid between municipalities in the Pinelands and the non-Pinelands widened for the sixth time in the last seven years. The average residential property tax bill in the Pinelands rose 6.8 percent in 2006 vs. 8.0 percent in the non-Pinelands region.

Effective tax rates, which measure the ratio of taxes to property value, have declined by 30 percent in the Pinelands during the last six years. During the same time period, effective tax rates have fallen by 21 percent in the non-Pinelands.

Gross debt ratios, which measure the total amount of outstanding debt of a community divided by a community’s property value, suggest that Pinelands communities as a whole are in a better fiscal borrowing situation than their non-Pinelands counterparts.

In 2005, the average

gross debt ratio was 25 percent lower in the Pinelands than in the non-Pinelands.

Although the median value of a home in the Pinelands was 7 percent lower than those in the surrounding areas 10 years ago, they are now 3 percent higher in the Pinelands.

The median sales price for a home in the Pinelands was $242,000 in 2006, compared to $235,000 for the non-Pinelands. This marks the second consecutive year that the median sales price for homes in the Pinelands is higher than for homes in the non-Pinelands.

Despite a slowdown in real estate activity in 2006, the average equalized property value increased by 13 percent in the Pinelands compared to an increase of 10.8 percent statewide.

The unemployment rate in the Pinelands was 4.8 percent for 2006, compared with 5.2 percent in the non- Pinelands.

Additionally, favorable growing conditions led to large increases in production for two major Pinelands crops – cranberries and blueberries – in 2005. The value of utilized production increased by 45 percent for cranberries, while increasing by 17 percent for blueberries for the year.

Although a few areas of the Pinelands are not fairing as well as others, there are plenty of encouraging signs that the economy in the Pinelands has not been sacrificed at the expense of protecting an ecosystem that is truly unique in the world.

John C. Stokes is the executive director of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, an independent state agency that oversees land use and natural resource protection in the Pinelands area of southern New Jersey.