Seeking Advice on Building in Wetlands in Ocean County, NJ

NJLand

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Feb 9, 2024
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Hello, fellow forum members! I'm currently considering purchasing a vacant building lot in Ocean County, NJ, but I've hit a bit of a snag. The online wetland map shows that a large part of the property is classified as wetlands (Freshwater Forested/Shrub Wetland), and there's also a creek running along one of the property borders. I've attached a photo for a better visual of the area, including the wetland and stream. The property in question is highlighted blue. The link to the photo can be found here
When I mentioned my concerns about the wetlands to the owner, they mentioned that the property could still be developed with the right permits. However, I'm not too sure about how accurate these maps are or what steps I need to take to determine if I can actually build a home there. From just looking at the photo, it's hard for me to tell if it's even possible to build on the property since most of it appears to be wetlands.

I'm new to this and unsure about the process. How reliable are these online maps? Should I hire a wetland delineation company to assess the site? Can the classification of the wetland portion change based on their findings? Any guidance on how to proceed or advice from anyone who's dealt with similar situations would be incredibly helpful. I'm eager to learn more and figure out the best course of action. Thanks in advance for any help you can provide!
 
Location
Ocean County, New Jersey, United States
Hello @NJLand and welcome! The National Wetlands Inventory imagery you shared is based on the Cowardin classification system. The Cowardin system classifies wetlands coarsely, using aerial imagery, and generally shouldn't be relied on for determining regulated wetlands and streams. I assume you obtained that image from the USFWS' Wetlands Mapper? If you look under the Wetlands Mapper's "About" tab, it provides the following disclaimer language that basically makes clear that these wetland maps have no legal meaning.

Precautions - Federal, state, and local regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over wetlands may define and describe wetlands in a different manner than that used in this inventory. There is no attempt, in either the design or products of this inventory, to define the limits of proprietary jurisdiction of any Federal, state, or local government or to establish the geographical scope of the regulatory programs of government agencies. Persons intending to engage in activities involving modifications within or adjacent to wetland areas should seek the advice of appropriate federal, state, or local agencies concerning specified agency regulatory programs and proprietary jurisdictions that may affect such activities.

As a wetlands regulator myself (for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, i.e., "the Corps"), I can't say I've ever used the Cowardin maps for permitting. They can potentially be used in emergency situations to help inform jurisdiction calls or assess impacts to aquatic resource functions and services - i.e., where Cowardin represents the "best available information" - but generally you'll be expected to obtain a jurisdictional delineation involving on-site data collection. For federal Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting, the delineation needs to be performed using the Corps' 1987 Wetland Delineation Manual and, in your case, Atlantic & Gulf Coast Regional Supplement (available here). Like you pointed out, you may want to hire a consultant to perform the delineation, but you can certainly try to save money and do it yourself, especially if you're able to identify all the plants at the site (cost savings made even more possible these days by plant ID apps).

Note that my expertise is in federal Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting, which is administered by the Corps Regulatory Program in nearly all states. Your situation is more unique, though, because you're in New Jersey, which is one of only three states that administers Section 404 permitting at the state, rather than federal, level. Based on some brief internet research, I understand that New Jersey administers its 404 program through its Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and that NJ's jurisdiction is more expansive than the federal government's due to the state's Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act.

As far as next steps - assuming you want to handle this yourself as much as possible and not shell out to consulting companies (which I always encourage!) - the best I can do is refer you to NJ DEP's website for wetland permitting. In order to confirm the extent of regulated wetlands on your property, the website states that you'll need to obtain a Letter of Interpretation (LOI). The LOI forms can be found here. If I were you, I would request a pre-application meeting with DEP staff to confirm that an LOI is what you actually need and discuss what specific permit type might apply. If you're trying to be economical, it's good practice to start by talking to the people who actually issue the permits, before paying consultants to get involved.

Hope some of that helps! Let me know if I can be of any further assistance.
 
Sometimes searching for a nearby property's classification will give you a good idea of what to expect. However, if a deal doesn't feel right, then it's usually best to walk away from it. I'd start asking questions and not let anyone rush me through the buying process. I hope it works out for you.
 
I think you should consult with the local government's environmental or planning department to understand specific rules and restrictions governing wetland development. You can also talk to a qualified environmental consultant to assess the feasibility and impact of the proposed construction.
 
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