Piping politics into the Pinelands Commission

Forces are converging in New Jersey to force the issue of whether or not a pipeline will be extended through the Pinelands in order to enable the conversion of a coal-burning plant in Beesley’s Point from coal to natural gas.

Much more is at stake than just new jobs, additional energy resources, or a perceived threat to the environment. The very integrity of the Pinelands Commission, the independent agency established in 1978 to manage one of the most the Northeast’s most important ecological areas—1.1 million acres underlain by aquifers containing17 trillion gallons of some of the purest water in the country—is at stake.

Pipeline denied

On January 10th members of the Commission deadlocked in a 7-7 vote over a pipeline proposed through an unusual though not unprecedented memorandum of agreement that would have allowed the Department of Public Utilities to partner with South Jersey Gas to lay pipe through a forested area that is protected by the commission’s Comprehensive Management Plan.

The tie vote effectively defeated the proposal, which was recommended by the commission’s executive director, a former director of environmental affairs for the New Jersey Builder’s Association, and strongly supported by Republican Governor Chris Christie and his staff.

An effort to overturn the vote a month later under failed when none of the commission members was willing to change his vote in order to reopen the matter.

Thwarted by the commission, South Jersey Gas appealed its decision to the Superior Court of New Jersey’s Appellate Division, which has taken the matter under consideration.

A decision in favor of South Jersey Gas seems unlikely, given that the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities was the official applicant before the Pinelands Commission.

Denied but not dead

While the contest of wills reflects a national divide between those pressing for additional sources of energy and environmentalists worried both about conservation and global warming, in New Jersey the revelations of politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge hint at an even more chilling prospect that the Pinelands debate is about to become even more politicized.

Consider this: Recent revelations that the Christie Administration successfully pressured the authority to direct funds towards repair of the Pulaski Highway, despite objections from authority staff that they were not authorized to do so, only adds to the perception that Governor Christie has politicized independent agencies for his own political purposes. 

House cleaning underway

By every reasonable criterion, the pipeline proposal appeared to have the backing it needed to pass in January. Supporters of the measure counted then Port Authority chair David Samson as their legal counsel. The state attorney general’s office ruled one of the perceived opponents of the proposal, Columbia University Law Professor, Edward Lloyd, ineligible to vote because he belonged to the board of trustees of an environmental organization that had requested more time for public comment on the pipeline project.

What a surprise it must have been when commission chair Mark Lohbauer, a longtime South Jersey Republican voted, against the proposal. Also voting no was D’Arcy Rohan Green, a member of the Borough Council of Bay Head, N.J. Christie appointed both Republicans to three-year terms in 2011 in cooperation with the New Jersey Federation of Environmentalists after it took the unexpected course of endorsing Christie for governor in 2009, the first time it had supported a Republican for the office in 30 years. 

Christie recently named replacements for pipeline opponents Green and Robert Jackson. The new appointments are North Hanover Mayor Dennis Roohr and Cape May County Democratic Committee secretary Robert S. Barr, both thought of pipeline backers. The duo still need confirmation by the state Senate before taking their positions.

However, another pipeline opponent, Leslie Ficcaglia, who served on the commission 18 years, was replaced by Jane Jannarone, by The Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Jannarone, a real estate developer, says she’s keeping an open mind on the pipeline issue. 

Meanwhile Lohbauer’s appointment expired June 30, as did the appointment of Candace Ashman, a reverred environmentalist who has served on the commission since its inception and who also voted against the pipeline. It’s not hard to imagine that both Lohbauer and Ashmun will be replaced by pro-pipeline supporters.

Lohbauer spelled out his opposition at the time of the vote. Critical in his mind was the commission’s responsibility to respect the Comprehensive Management Plan. That document allows for a waiver of strict compliance, but the usual process for impinging on a protected area is to demonstrate either a “compelling public need” or “extraordinary hardship.” By pursuing an exception through the lower standard provided in a memorandum of agreement, he argued, the applicants failed to satisfy either requirement.

Pipeline’s future

New Jersey Gas has spoken confidently about returning to the commission should the court not rule in its favor. A demonstration of compelling public need would require support of their application.

But with all the new faces on the Pinelands Commission, NJ Gas could find a sympathic ear, given the perception that the Christie administration is determined to pack its membership with pipeline supporters. If that happens, it could have a longterm chilling effect on the independence of the Pinelands Commission that will extend well beyond the term of this governor.

 

Howard Gillette is author of Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City and is professor of history emeritus at Rutgers Camden.

 

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