News from the Home Team...       Richard Grzywinski, Chair

Almost Ready for Site Work! 

The surveying of our building site will be conducted on Monday, October 1. The surveyors will locate the tree clearing line, the location of the two islands in the parking lot, and the construction road entrance. They will also provide us with an elevation benchmark to guide our future construction. The visible result of this activity will be a series of flags at a minimum of 50-foot intervals.

Following the survey, Jesse Connor and I will review the layout to determine if any minor adjustment should be made to the tree clearing line to save any particularly important trees, either by virtue of species or size. We will put bright marker flags on all trees destined to remain, as a guide to future site clearing. We will also examine the location of the two islands to see if, miraculously, we can salvage a few trees within the islands rather than landscaping with new. We may even be able to move the islands a bit. I believe Jesse also has a plan to recover some plants or bushes in the area to be cleared.

Following this process, the township will come out to examine what we have laid out and approve it. Then, in the next few weeks, we can begin actual clearing of the site (tree and stump removal). One of our criteria in selecting a contractor is documented assurance that the wood will be reused for beneficial agricultural purposes such as mulching and soil amendment to farmers. As an immediate follow-up to site clearing, we will need to re-grade the site and build the retention basin to make sure no soil or water leaves the site in the event of heavy rain. We will also build the temporary construction road so that trucks leaving the site do not carry soil onto Leibig Road.

Richard Grzywinski
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March 2007 news 

As we’ve reported in the past, progress on all the needed local permits for our future building has been delayed by a requirement that we conduct a two season (last fall, and a coming spring-summer period) drift net trapping survey to determine if any northern pine snakes, a threatened species in New Jersey, use our land. Under state law, Galloway Township cannot even consider our site plan and building application until we have a first stage approval from the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, called a Certificate of Filing, so the pine snake studies have been a major roadblock. Our wildlife consultants have consistently stated in reports to Pinelands that our land is simply not critical habitat for the snakes, and none were trapped in the autumn fall drift net study, but until recently Pinelands has persisted in its demands that we continue this labor intensive, costly and project-delaying study.

Although we can be only cautiously optimistic, a few days ago the pendulum seems to have swung in the direction of common sense and credible science.

In January, we appealed directly to the executive director of the Commission. In a letter we received February 16, 2007, he acknowledged that our investigation of state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) records was accurate and that a Pinelands staff claim of a recent DEP sighting of a pine snake near our property was, in fact, “a mistake.” The agency continues to contend that it has in its possession an older record -- albeit one that Pinelands staff reviewing our project has admitted may be as much as a quarter century or more old. However, Pinelands director John Stokes stated that his agency was willing to reconsider the need for the spring-summer study on our land. Yay.

Six days later, on February 22, we received an additional letter from Pinelands staff affirming they would revisit the notion that we had to conduct the second phase of the study. We had already forwarded a December 2006 letter from consultant Clay Sutton, an eminent naturalist/biologist and retired vice-president of the highly regarded consulting firm Herpetological Associates (HA), stating that, based on both his survey of our land and on the autumn data, no further study was needed in his professional opinion. After we contacted them early in the week, staff at HA, which was conducting our snake trapping study, reported to us on Friday, February 23 that they were about to mail the autumn data, showing no evidence of pine snakes, to Pinelands accompanied by a professional opinion that our land is not suitable pine snake habitat and that no further work should be required.
We hope common sense will prevail at last, and that we will be able to report in the next newsletter that we can proceed with obtaining our local building approvals.

-- submitted by Jon Luoma

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January 2007 news 

It’s been a very busy stretch for the Home Team (building committee). We reported in the November newsletter that, at the urging of several team members and the congregation’s Board, we were looking hard at the prospect of expanding our building, in light of the dramatic recent growth in our congregation. The concern was that in short order we could run out of seating space in our main meeting room, and that we’d end up being compelled to expand far sooner than we had anticipated (even though future expansion had always been in the plans). After more detailed discussions with the Board, and on the advice of experienced builders in our midst who note that future expansion will never be cheaper than completing the project all at once, a majority of the Home Team has tentatively recommended we complete the full build-out, adding about 800 square feet to each floor. This is likely going to increase up-front costs, but there will be some chances to save. For example, in the basement, space we don’t anticipate using in the near term we’d simply leave unfinished. Our architects, Steve Fenwick and Associates, are now adjusting their drawings.

Meanwhile, Home Team member and builder/engineer (and M.B.A. to boot) Richard Gryzwinski has developed a detailed spreadsheet which we are using to try to come up with tighter estimates of what it will cost us to build this expanded new home. Additionally, our engineering firm has tweaked the site and grading plan, and in late December submitted a full set of plans and a list of other requested items to the New Jersey Pinelands Commission for approval. Pinelands regulatory staff often respond with additional questions, but we hope to be done with almost all but one aspect of this complex application within the first quarter of the New Year.

That final aspect is the pine snake study. Herpetological Associates completed the fall portion of a drift fence trapping study, and no snakes were found. Normally, an additional spring-summer study period is required. However, we are requesting that the spring-summer study be waived. Our lead consultant on the pine snake issue, the naturalist-biologist Clay Sutton (now retired, but once a Herpetological Associates consultant), in December wrote a detailed letter arguing his reasons why he believes the totality of data, including the fall trapping study and Sutton’s own previous habitat assessment, show that this is not suitable habitat for pine snakes. Under a New Jersey Open Record Act request, we have also recently received a response from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, indicating that NJDEP has no records of pine snakes in the vicinity of our property and that its own habitat assessment deems our land not to be suitable habitat. We are forwarding this information to Pinelands Commission staff with a request that the issue of the pine snake be closed so that we can proceed with construction.

Timeline: if the snake studies are deemed to be complete, our engineers say we should anticipate about five months after Pinelands initial approval to gain all the needed township and county construction approvals and then the required final Pinelands approval. Optimistically, we could begin construction as soon as fall 2007. If we must conduct another season of snake surveys, construction would be delayed for another five or six months.

In the meantime, we are proceeding with a wide range of other items. Our architects should soon be providing completed detailed construction drawings and schematics for the up-sized building, and Home Team member Dr. Lynn Stiles is beginning to develop a design for a highly energy-efficient but also highly cost-effective heating, cooling, and ventilation system. For our green building project, we’re looking further into what environmentally sustainable and healthy materials will be suitable and cost effective for our building.

We’ve appointed two small, focused action teams, a Construction Committee of three led by Richard Gryzwinski and including Jonathan Shambare (an architect in our midst, who manages facilities development at Stockton) and, tentatively Lynn Stiles. (Lynn would be happy to step aside and concentrate on heating and cooling issues if a congregation member or friend with extensive construction management experience steps forward.) Builder Chris Holaday continues to serve as our key intermediary with architects and engineers and has generously offered to serve as construction manager for the project; we are recommending that the Board take him up on this generous offer. Chris has also offered to provide one of his framing-carpentry crews to us at his hourly cost. The Construction Committee will manage accounts payable, assess the subcontractor bids Chris brings in, and will see that all subcontractors are properly insured and the congregation suitably indemnified. Jesse Connor will be heading up another group of three that will focus on interior finishes and fittings. We’ve also put landscape design in Jesse’s experienced and capable hands -- if you’ve seen the new garden at the Cape May County Zoo, that’s Jesse’s work.

Building is a daunting prospect in many ways. But we’ve been astonished at some of the professional expertise that has emerged from volunteers within our own congregation. And we promise, all of those who have offered to chip in with “sweat equity” once construction is underway – whether painting, hammering nails, or planting shrubs – will be given that chance to sweat.

-- submitted by Jon Luoma

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November 2006 news 

Most of you know that the Pinelands Commission has required us to conduct a trapping study to rule out the possibility that the threatened Northern Pine Snake forages on our land. After services on October 15, some of us from the congregation had the opportunity to tramp through the underbrush to see the drift fence and traps set up as part of the study. This sort of study normally is conducted over two seasons, autumn and spring. The autumn study period ends on October 31 and, as our consultants expected, no pine snakes have so far appeared.

Meanwhile, Home Team members, at the urging of the Board of Trustees, are using the time-lull to revisit the issue of how large our building needs to be. The dramatic growth in our membership in the past two years suggests that we may need to allow for more seating in the main meeting room. This, of course, would entail more construction costs. But it also might ultimately be more cost-effective than building a too-small building now, and having to add an addition shortly afterwards. Stay tuned for the committee’s recommendation on expanding sooner rather than later.

-- submitted by Jon Luoma

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October 2006 news 

Stockton student Phil Skipwith has been surveying the snake traps on our property for Herpetological Associates, as part of our response to the Pinelands Commission decision that we needed to perform a full drift fence survey for the northern pine snake. Phil is a junior biology major and an avid herpetologist. The fence is comprised of several hundred feet of reinforced black plastic that is anchored by stakes. Snakes and other animals encounter the fence and are then led into box traps as they try to find a way around. Phil checks the traps every other day, so that any trapped animal is not left there long. Anything caught in the trap is recorded and released. The temperature, wind speed, and weather conditions are also recorded for each visit.

So far, he’s had no finds of any snakes of any species. Our upland oak/pine forest is not considered prime snake habitat.

The UUCSJS is indebted to Phil for agreeing to volunteer his services to Herpetological Associates. We are saving a great deal of money by not having to pay for HA to have a staff person come to our property to do the drift fence checks every other day. In appreciation of his willingness to help out, and consideration of adjustments he has to make to his own schedule, we are gathering a basket of gift certificates and goodies for this hard-working college junior. We are hoping to present him with the basket on October 15 when we visit the site after service.

-- submitted by Jon Luoma

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September 2006 news 

At this point, several critical pieces related to building our new home on Pomona Road have fallen into place, or nearly so. The Home Team met recently to refine several points of our architect's building design, which is now nearly complete. We hope to have the option of adding a deck off the main meeting room. Some new adjustments in the basement layout are aimed at providing even more workable space than in preliminary floor-plan drawings on display at the annual meeting in May 2006. Also, our site engineering firm is making some final adjustments to building and parking lot placement and -- [high excitement coming] recently we've had a backhoe on the site digging holes to evaluate our soil for the design of our future septic system.

Moving through the Pinelands approval process, however, has not proved to be easy or quick, despite some truly outstanding help we've received. The very good news: as our environmental consultants, Jack Connor and Steve Whitford completed a detailed series of surveys that determined that our site is not habitat for any of the three threatened or endangered birds Pinelands demanded we check for: Barred owl, Red-headed woodpecker, and Coopers hawk.

The more problematic news: Pinelands notified us in August that it intends to require us to conduct time-consuming trapping studies for the Northern pine snake, largely based on a Pinelands record of such a pine snake having been spotted somewhere near our property in the past. We have a meeting scheduled with Pinelands staff in early September to ask for clarification on this matter, to discuss options and negotiate the issue in more detail. We hope to have an update available on this in the next newsletter.

-- Jon Luoma
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April 2006 news 

You've probably heard of the old Chinese blessing/curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, it's been an interesting several weeks for your Home Team (building committee) and, by extension, the Board. After a long meeting, Home Team members, along with President Paul Utts, came to a solid consensus on the firm to do our site engineering. A contract has now been signed with Marathon Engineering & Environmental Services, a firm based in Absecon. We were highly impressed with Marathon's get-it-done competency and substantial experience, particularly with both Pinelands and Galloway Township. Their lead planner turns out to be the former Galloway township planner, and the firm has recently done the site planning and engineering for the newly approved Catholic church on Pitney Road as well as work on another church within the Pinelands in Galloway, along with numerous other Pinelands/Galloway projects. In a move that probably saved us a full year of delays, Marathon had advised us to move quickly in determining if springtime surveys for rare or endangered species might be required. Site engineering firms do not do this work themselves, instead either sub-contracting the work or (better, because of no overhead charges) allowing the congregation to contract out this work itself. Marathon itself suggested that to save costs we contract the work out ourselves and provided a recommendation of a local firm that could help us.

That's when it got interesting. We immediately sent a letter to Pinelands requesting clarification on the endangered species question. Although surveys for such species had not been included in Pinelands' initial response during our “due diligence” period before we bought the land in 2003, there were signs that circumstances had changed. As noted in the last newsletter, barred owls had been located in the general vicinity, and we had learned that a developer with a large block of property adjacent to ours had recently been asked to conduct assessments for several other species. Our response from Pinelands, received in mid-March, indicated that, indeed, we would be required to conduct surveys for three bird species (Barred owls, Coopers hawks, and Red-headed woodpeckers) as well as the northern Pine Snake.

The bad news: some checking with the local firm recommended by Marathon suggested that their “best rate” for doing this work would be $13,000, and perhaps substantially more if we were required, as is common for Pinelands, to do snake surveys in both spring and fall. As noted last month, Stockton ornithology professor Jack Connor (husband of Board member Jesse) has very generously offered to conduct the bird surveys for us at no charge, an immensely generous offer. Although Jack is without question well qualified to do the fieldwork and related reporting, he expressed concerns about establishing scientific survey protocols that would be a good “fit” for Pinelands submissions. Another angel has arrived in the person of Steve Whitford, an old friend of the congregation with 17 years of experience working on these issues. He has offered to provide whatever back-stop consultation we need now, including help in setting up proper survey protocols, and will accept pay on an hourly basis. At a March 22 meeting at the Connors’ home, a group of us developed a strategy for dealing with the snake issue that we believe will likely relieve us of the need to do expensive full scale surveys: Jack and Jesse's recent walk of the site, and Steve's general knowledge of the area (he arrived at the meeting with ecosystem maps) suggest we can make a scientifically solid case that there is no pine snake habitat on our site.

More good news: although it took a number of days to work out details in our engineering contract, the kickoff design meeting with project manager Chris Holaday, our architect Steve Fenwick, and our engineers is scheduled for March 30.

-- Jon Luoma

BARRED OWL (Strix varia)
This bird makes a call that seems to be saying "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" It grows to about 16-23 inches long. It's a dark grayish-brown, barred with white and vertical streaks on its belly. It lives in wooded swamps and lowland forests and drier upland forests. It mostly eats mice but will also eat small mammals, birds, reptiles, snakes, insects, and crayfish.

NORTHERN PINE SNAKE (Pituophis melanoleucus)
This snake likes flat, dry, sandy areas. It is one of the few snakes that burrow in open sandy fields. It mostly travels on the ground and occasionally climbs trees. It feeds on rabbits, rodents, birds, and their eggs. When approached it will loudly hiss and vibrate its tail - so you would think it is a rattlesnake! But it is a constrictor that squeezes its prey and will not strike. They live well in the Pine Barrens because when fires occur, it clears the forest floor for them.

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March 2006 news 

We know there hasn't been much news here from the Home Team (the committee focused on getting our new congregational "home" built) That's because, like a ship on a long-becalmed sea, progress has been stalled while we waited for detailed bids from three site-engineering firms, a process complicated by the fact that most of these firms seem to be already intensely busy. Three bids from professionally qualified outfits are finally now all in. The work these firms will do is going to be extensive, and evidently more expensive than we had hoped. As of this writing, the Home Team and Board President Paul Utts will be poring over these proposals in an attempt to make a recommendation to the entire board about which firm fits our needs at the best price. And, despite some sticker shock here, we also do have some great news on some aspects that will actually save us a bit of money, so read on.

The scope of work our engineering/environmental/site-planning group will do ranges from designing the septic, drainage, and retention systems to coordinating site design, parking, lighting and other issues with our architect, and also seeing us through all our environmental, municipal, county and other permits. There are a lot of regulatory requirements.

We've already learned that the owner of the large tract of 110 acres of land surrounding us has applied for a Pinelands permit to develop 19 houses on 5-acre lots. (Right across Pomona Rd., Stockton College is applying for permits to expand its dorm complexes even further in our direction.) Early in February, the private developer of the land around us was notified that he was required to conduct a preliminary habitat assessment to check for the possible presence of several endangered species, some associated with wetlands near one part of this large tract. If his consultants indeed find suitable habitat, further studies will have to be conducted to check for actual presence of these species.

We do not know yet if we will have to conduct similar studies. We were careful to be sure our plot neither contains nor is near wetlands. There's some chance that if the private developer's studies show no evidence of habitat, at least near our land, we'll get a free pass. However, there's suddenly a timing problem. If there is a possibility that we will have to undertake at least a preliminary habitat assessment for barred owl, a state “listed” species that has been located in more deeply wooded areas on the Stockton College Campus and other nearby areas in the months since we purchased our land, that study will have to be completed during the spring nesting season. If we miss this spring, we could be made to wait a full year.

In fact, there's enough bird and Pinelands ecology expertise in our own group that we don't anticipate a serious problem. However, we do have a letter in to Pinelands inquiring about whether we will have to document this and should have a reply soon. The good news is that we have learned that Jack Connor, husband of board member Jesse Connor (and an ornithology professor, among many talents) would not only be qualified to conduct any required study, he has offered to donate his services, if needed -- a substantial potential savings to our building account.

And for those who missed the news: our architect has been retained. His name is Steve Fenwick. You're already familiar with his work. Not only did he design the extensive remodeling of the old building that became Jewish Family Services in Margate, where UUCSJS once met, he is also the designer of our present rented space, the Campus Ministry Center. Steve will first provide the preliminary design that will give our engineers a building "footprint" to work with in their site design and permit application work. He'll then be filling in all the details as the Pinelands permit work proceeds.

What's next? In a matter of days, Chris Holaday, as our construction point-man, will be getting together with architect and newly-retained site engineers for an all important kickoff meeting. This meeting will also include a representative from Superior Walls. This company may be providing an innovative, highly insulated, and, from initial estimates, quite affordable pre-cast concrete walls for the shell for our structure.

Soon, we'll be able to provide more information about other energy efficient and environmentally friendly aspects of our future “green” building.

So how long to groundbreaking? One engineering firm provided us with a timeline, highlighting the additional steps we will have to take to get through various regulatory bodies, including completing the application we already have at Pinelands and moving on to township approval: seven to eight months. This may be a bit overly optimistic. If not, work could begin sometime this fall!

-- Jon Luoma

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October 2005 news 

As most of you already know, the Board has decided to retain an architectural firm (or architect-regulatory planner), not only to help us with design, but to guide us through the time-consuming and sometimes difficult process of gaining environmental and other permits.

The Home Team has now had excellent conversations with two architects, and may be talking to a third in coming days. By the next issue of this newsletter, we hope to announce that our architect has been chosen and is already moving forward in key discussions with Galloway Township.

We're continuing to collect information on the sorts of "Green Building" approaches we're going to recommend. Currently, ideas under consideration include massive insulation, a solar electric photovoltaic electric power system, flooring made from highly renewable and/or recycled materials, and an innovative heating-cooling system that could include "passive" solar. In each case, these are systems that will at least pay for themselves over the life of our mortgage. In some cases, they include state subsidies aimed at kick-starting renewable energy industries that we as UU’s believe in so strongly.

-- Jon Luoma

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