Inside 20-year effort to build houses in Pinelands

Developer (and township) feel he has right to build proposed retirement community — but residents are expected to continue their objection at key meeting this week

The proposed residential development appears to be a community-saving project for the township — one that numerous municipalities around the state would love to have.


  • The developer aims to bring 561 units (and nearly 900 residents) to a local economy that is in desperate need of their spending power;
  • The developer figures he’ll bring an estimated surplus of $1.67 million in tax revenue to the township, too;
  • Since all of the units will be age-restricted (55 and up), the developer estimates that it will provide a surplus of $2.4 million to the local school district — without adding a single student;
  • And, since the community will be age-restricted, the additional recreational spaces that are needed (think pickleball courts) will be provided by the builder.

Then, there’s this: The developer and the builder are well respected and have a long history of successful projects in the state — and the developer has had a general development approval for nearly 17 years.

What’s not to like?

When Barry Bielat and representatives from Bielat Santore & Co. go before the planning board of Pemberton Township on Thursday night, seeking to get approval for phase one of their Liberty Woods residential community, they figure to only have one big obstacle to overcome — the fact that the project is based in the Pinelands.

Bielat expects to face a large crowd of residents who oppose his plan.

“A lot of people just want things to stay the way they are, and are against any type of development,” he said.

Bielat, the president of Bielat Santore, has been working to get the project started for nearly two decades. He has faced an exceptional number of delays and lawsuits (not necessarily associated with the Pinelands) in a state known for exceptionally long development delays.

The project now is ready to go, he said.


New Jersey’s Pine Barrens region, which includes the Pinelands.

Bielat is cautiously optimistic he will get approval to begin phase one of the project, approximately 89 single-family homes to be built by Ryan Homes — nearly 20% of the project, he said.

Bielat is confident for two reasons:

  1. He’s following guidelines the Pinelands Commission and the township established decades ago, when they knew they needed some development.

“The state selected the portion of this property proposed for development for regional growth — and the towns were obligated to create zoning so that you could build these types of developments,” he said. “I’m not presenting anything here that doesn’t go along with what the state and the town said they wanted.”

  1. With an actual sense of irony, the more than 1.1 million acres of the Pinelands needs some limited development (and the revenue from it) for it to remain the preserve that it is.

“I think that a lot of people who have moved into the Pinelands, especially Pemberton, like the way it naturally is and just don’t want any development,” he said “I get that. But, if they really understood the project — and really understood that you can’t have the preserved space without projects like this — they may feel differently.”


Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve through the passage of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. It is the first national reserve in the country.

The Pinelands National Reserve spans portions of seven counties and all or part of 56 municipalities. It occupies 22% of New Jersey’s land area. It is the largest body of open space on the mid-Atlantic seaboard between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

In 1979, New Jersey formed a partnership with the federal government to preserve, protect and enhance the natural and cultural resources of this special place. The reserve is home to dozens of rare plant and animal species and the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer system, which contains an estimated 17 trillion gallons of water.

Many think the creation of the reserve came with a stipulation that the land could not be developed. It did not — something the state’s website on the Pinelands states.

“Through its implementation of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission protects the Pinelands in a manner that maintains the region’s unique ecology while permitting compatible development,” it says.

Some development of the Pinelands, in the areas designated by the Pinelands Commission, is needed to raise money to protect the rest of the preserve — and to compensate any property owners who own parcels in the Preservation Area and the Agricultural Production Areas.


A rendering of some of the planned townhomes. (Bielat Santore & Co.)

Bielat was given a general development approval for the project in June 2007 — off an application that was initially filed in 2005. It is valid until 2026.

There’s a reason he was given permission, he said.

“In order for the Pinelands to work where it’s fair for everybody, they needed to create these regional development centers so people like me can buy credits from people who have property in the middle of the Pinelands that cannot be developed,” he said. “Otherwise, the state would just be condemning people’s land.”

Bielat notes, he’s pro-Pinelands. He’s not a slash-and-burn developer placing profit over preservation.

Far from it, he said.

“The Pinelands is one of the biggest environmental success stories of any place in the country,” he said.

He notes the Liberty Woods community is using only 170 of the 695 eligible acres he has to potentially build on.

“That means there’s about 500 acres that will be preserved space in perpetuity,” he said. “Not only that, because of the Pinelands credits we are buying, we’re preserving thousands of acres elsewhere in the Pinelands.”


Liberty Woods, as Bielat proposes, would consist of a mixture of 456 single-family detached homes with an anticipated (average) sales price of $385,000 and 105 single-family attached (townhouse) units with an anticipated (average) sales price of $335,000.

Prices, of course, will vary. As will the mixture of single-family homes to townhomes. Bielat said the interest in the first phase will determine future phases.

Getting the ability to start that first phase is the next test.

Should the first phase gain approval Thursday night, Bielat said he anticipates being able to start in a month or two — and then would need approximately a year to put in water and sewer systems. One timeline would have construction starting in the fourth quarter of 2025.

Of course, Bielat has been to enough planning board meetings in his more than 40-year career to know that the process can be slowed when local residents are in opposition.

And this isn’t the first public meeting on the project, either. He has been meeting with Pemberton officials for more than a year, he said.

“They can either approve it, postpone the decision to another meeting or ask for more information,” he said. “It’s always hard to get a read on these things.

“But, I think, at the end of the day, they’ll give the approval because it’s zoned and I have a GDP approval.”


A rendering of the community center planned for Liberty Woods. (Bielat Santore & Co.)

Pemberton Township Mayor Jack Tompkins has recused himself from the discussion over the Liberty Woods project. Questions were directed to Daniel Hornickel, the township’s business administrator.

Hornickel said the project would be of help to the town, which has faced a steady decline in population since 2000, he said.

“The township is generally in favor of the development,” he said in an email response to questions.

Hornickel said the development matches permitted uses for the area, too. He only disputes the potential tax revenue that potentially could come from it, saying some of the proposed housing units are on land the township no longer is interested in selling, thus decreasing the size of the project.

“I would estimate the economic impact of the development to be in the range of 65% to 75% of the estimates reported, due to a reduction in the number of dwelling units,” he said. “The developer is pursuing phase one final approval of 90 homes this Thursday night; he has not stated what the revised buildout would be.”

The only other issue, Hornickel said, involves updates in the stormwater regulations and other development impact regulations that the Pinelands Commission has made since granting Bielat’s firm a general site plan approval more than a decade ago.

“The developer has a few items of concern to satisfy the commission before the commission will issue him final approval to build (presuming that the township planning board does, too),” he wrote.


So, why the controversy and contention?

Hornickel acknowledges there has been some confusion about the project — and the ability to build in the Pinelands — for years.

“There is a misperception that the entire tract is part of the ‘public’ forest; that’s untrue,” he wrote. “Of the 700 or so acres that the developer controls, the western portion of the tract, perhaps 300 acres, is in a Pinelands Forest Area.

“The developer has never indicated an intention to disturb that portion of his holdings. Some opponents claim that the entire property should remain undisturbed for its ecological significance, while others want to use it for dirt bike riding, hunting and other active recreational uses that may cause damage to the terrain and ecosystems.”

Hornickel said the law is on Bielat’s side.

“Ultimately, the corpus of the tract is privately owned, with about 400 acres in a Pinelands Regional Growth Zone,” he wrote. “Under the New Jersey and U.S. constitutions, the property owner has a legal right to pursue development of the property consistent with what is permitted under the Pemberton Township Code and the (Pinelands) Comprehensive Management Plan.”

Bielat admits, if he knew then what he knows now, he may not have taken on this project. Then again, big projects like these are not easy to come by.

His company is working on a project of roughly the same size in Monroe Township in Gloucester County. Bielat acknowledges those are the exceptions.

“It’s very hard to find large tracts of property in New Jersey,” he said.

That’s why he’s willing to wait it out.

“I’ll get it done,” he said. “It’s a matter of perseverance. I’ve been involved in a lot of projects over my career, and some take longer than others. If you’re going to do business in New Jersey, you have to have perseverance. I do.”