The Sanctuary

The saga of "The Sanctuary” development in the Pine Barrens of Evesham Township is an object lesson in just how hard it is to protect the region’s rare plants and animals from the impacts of development.

Image of The Sanctuary development.[+ ZOOM] The Sanctuary development. © PPA

But it is also a lesson in the value of fighting even the losing battles, because of the benefits that come from raising the consciousness of the public and government officials. This struggle over this development was a seminal battle in the campaign to save rare Pinelands species.

A Historical Overview

Rattlesnakes Are Found at the “Sanctuary”
In 1997, a developer began building the first of a planned 300-home subdivision along Kettle Run Creek in Evesham Township. Perhaps with tongue planted in cheek, he named it the “Sanctuary” as crews began to clear the forest.

In May 1998, PPA learned that a scientist had radio-tracked an endangered Eastern timber rattlesnake to a hibernation den on the banks of Kettle Run right in the heart of the planned development.

Timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) are an endangered species in New Jersey. Once fairly common in the Pinelands and Highlands regions, they are now very rare due to loss of habitat, collecting, and killing by humans. This species of rattlesnake is very passive, not at all aggressive. While they are venomous and a rattlesnake bite is always a serious medical issue, there are no known cases in New Jersey of a person dying from a timber rattlesnake bite.

Image of Timber Rattlesnake[+ ZOOM] Timber Rattlesnake © PPA

PPA submitted the information to the Pinelands Commission. It quickly became apparent that, as people moved into the first housing built in the development, rattlesnakes were appearing on road and in yards. In many cases, people killed the rattlesnakes, either accidentally or out of misplaced fear. Several rattlesnakes were caught and tagged. There was clearly a robust population at the site, but it was already suffering mortality due to the development.

The Pinelands Commission Takes Action
PPA submitted the information to the Pinelands Commission, which stopped further approvals beyond the first 103 houses, for which the developer already had final approvals. The developer sued the Pinelands Commission. The Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan bars development that will cause an irreversible adverse impact to any habitats that are critical to the survival of a local population of a state- or federally-listed threatened or endangered species – like the timber rattlesnake.

PPA, New Jersey Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council entered the developer’s suit on the side of the Pinelands Commission and submitted extensive expert evidence that the proposed development would violate the CMP’s protections for timber rattlesnakes by destorying critical habitats.

Pinelands Commission Reverses Course, Dooms Rattlesnakes
Before long, the Pinelands Commission struck its own deal with developer, and it was a very bad one indeed. The settlement allowed the developer to build up to about 250 houses, effectively surrounding the rattlesnakes’ hibernation area. The developer also sold a portion of the parcel to the state at full market value of $5 million.

Image of PPA naturalist Russell Juelg, left, and Board Member Michael Gallaway inspect the culvert and fencing installed at the Sanctuary in an attempt to direct the movement of snakes. Destroyed by vandals in many areas, the fence experiment is largely considered a failure at snake protection.[+ ZOOM] PPA naturalist Russell Juelg, left, and Board Member Michael Gallaway inspect the culvert and fencing installed at the Sanctuary in an attempt to direct the movement of snakes. Destroyed by vandals in many areas, the fence experiment is largely considered a failure at snake protection. © Kevin Sparkman

Finally, the Commission had the developer agree to install “snake fences” to try to direct the rattlesnakes in and out of their hibernation areas without going into the neighborhood’s lawns and streets. There was no experience or scientific evidence suggesting these fences would work as intended, and there were many reasons to see they would not.

Since the development of 250 houses would still doom the rattlesnake population and violate the CMP, why would the Pinelands Commission agree to such a settlement? A major factor seems to have been the fear that the courts would disapprove of applying the CMP protections in this case because the Commission only raised the rattlesnake issue after giving the developer final approvals for the first two sections of his development.

PPA, New Jersey Audubon Society and NRDC challenged the legality of the settlement in court. After several years of delays, the appeals court sided with the Pinelands Commission, but only by misrepresenting the facts, and even the legal position of the Commission itself. The decision was just one in a long line of cases in which New Jersey’s courts have slavishly approved state agency actions that violate environmental standards in favor of development.

What’s Happened to the Rattlesnakes?
The Sanctuary development has expanded since the rattlesnake settlement, but is still not finished. The developer built the “snake fences,” but as we predicted they quickly fell into disrepair due to natural forces and Off-Road Vehicle riders who cut gaps in the fences. You can see them still.

It is likely the population is extirpated or severely depleted, and there is no reason to believe it has somehow adjusted to the development and all the houses, roads and people in its former range.

So how have the rattlesnakes fared? Very badly so far as anyone can tell. After entering the settlement agreement, the Pinelands Commission sent its scientists to study the local rattlesnake population over a period of three seasons. They tracked a number of rattlesnakes. Of the nine they tracked, three were found dead due to human causes during this brief study. Snakes were found to have avoided the snake fences and moved into the development during their summer foraging travels. Then the study ended.

No further studies have been carried out, but the reports of rattlesnakes being found in the development have stopped. It is likely the population is extirpated or severely depleted, and there is no reason to believe it has somehow adjusted to the development and all the houses, roads and people in its former range.

Why It Was Worth the Fight

We lost the Sanctuary battle. The rattlesnakes, and all the other animals and plants that used this area as critical habitat, also lost this battle.

But the Sanctuary case was the first one that raised the issue of rare species like rattlesnakes, which are not “charismatic” species like bald eagles, to wide public attention. It was the first real test of the Pinelands Commission’s will to enforce its threatened and endangered species regulations. While the Commission utterly failed this test, it also recognized that it needed to do a better job in the future.

And it has. Both the Pinelands Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection have become much more rigorous and proactive in their review of potential developments in the Pinelands and coastal areas with respect to rare species. They do not always succeed, and they still sometimes pull their punches so developments can go forward, but they are also protecting many critical areas through demanding more rigorous surveys for the presence of rare species and implementing the legal protections that do exist for threatened and endangered species in the Pinelands National Reserve.

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