We issued our first State of the Pinelands report in 2007. Reviewing this decade of reports, it becomes clear that many important policy problems have continued throughout these years without meaningful action by the Pinelands Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and other responsible agencies. In contrast, during this period we have seen several major developments with enormous long-term impacts advance quickly, with great determination shown by the Pinelands Commission, DEP and the governor’s office to get them approved despite big legal and environmental problems. Government knows how to act when key players choose to do so. Unfortunately, we have not seen that kind of decisive action on the following fundamental challenges to the Pinelands.
Stalled Policy Initiatives
Statewide Water Supply Master Plan – The DEP last released a statewide Water Supply Master Plan in 1996. DEP officials promised to release an updated plan in 2002, 2005, and several times since – but it is still missing in action, apparently moldering in the governor’s office. This planning document is important, because it tells the public, water purveyors and government agencies at all levels whether the water supply in each part of the state is secure, is in trouble, or may get into trouble if trends continue. Studies by the US Geological Service and others show that the Kirkwood-Cohansey and Atlantic City 800-Foots Sands – South Jersey’s principal water supplies – are being over-pumped in many areas. In 2016, DEP put every county in the state except for Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland under a drought watch for the fall of 2016. The events of this year signal an immediate need to release the Water Supply Master Plan and apply its findings to protecting our water supplies. Yet the public continues to wait.
Water Allocation Rules – For the last several years, the Pinelands Commission and DEP have recognized the need to reform their standards governing increased pumping of water from the Kirkwood-Cohansey and related aquifers. In addition to studies showing the aquifers are threatened with over-pumping, the multi-million dollar Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer Study, begun in 2001 and finally completed in 2012, showed how lowering the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer harms ecosystems that depend upon it. The agencies have discussed detailed proposals, but have taken no action whatsoever to reform their water allocation rules.
Pinelands Protections for Water Quality – A clean water supply is essential to residential and ecological communities, but Pinelands waters are contaminated in many areas. In 2006, the Pinelands Commission released a report, White Paper on Preserving Ambient Water Quality – Policy Implications of Pinelands Commission Research Projects, which recognized the threat of “non-point source” contamination that comes with all forms of development. The report gave examples of ways the Commission can reduce water quality impacts from development through regulatory changes and incentives. The Commission has never seriously debated, much less acted on those recommendations.
Rapid Speed Development Projects
Meanwhile, here are three examples of major development projects that violate the CMP but have been pushed hard by the Pinelands Commission and/or its staff, DEP and, in some cases, the governor’s office – showing these agencies can act decisively when they choose. All of these matters are still unresolved, but only because PPA, citizens and allied advocacy groups have filed successful legal challenges.
Stafford Business Park – This development project was presented as a compromise to protect water quality in exchange for houses. In reality it set new precedents for developing known rare species habitats by attempting to relocate threatened and endangered plants and wildlife from their established habitats, and using the public memorandum of agreement process to waive and manipulate Pinelands rules in order to foster very large private development. The developer’s proposal to cap a landfill and move protected species in exchange for the construction of over 500 housing units and a big shopping center was introduced in late 2004 and approved in July 2006. It was a short turn around for a waiver of key environmental protections to accommodate a massive for-profit development project on what had been public land in Stafford Township.
South Jersey Gas and New Jersey Natural Gas – These natural gas transmission lines are proposed to cut through the southern and northern parts of the Pinelands in the Forest Area and Preservation Area – management areas that can only allow large infrastructure projects that serve existing needs within those areas. Both these pipelines fail that standard, and both are entirely unnecessary. With pressure from the state’s most powerful Republican and Democratic politicians and the help of the Pinelands Commission’s executive director, both projects were moved rapidly through the Commission process. They have encountered unexpected problems when the full Commission declined to approve the South Jersey Gas project, and, after the government tried to simply circumvent Commission review, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court ruled those efforts to be unlawful. At this writing, the South Jersey Gas pipeline will likely come up for a vote before the Pinelands Commission on February 24th and the New Jersey Natural Gas pipeline is not far behind.
Wal-Mart in Toms River – This Wal-Mart Superstore proposal to cram a huge store and shopping center onto a parcel that is too small and has threatened and endangered species is in the coastal portion of the Pinelands, where DEP has the primary permitting powers. DEP initially denied the application for all the right reasons, and then simply reversed itself when a new governor came into office. Since then the DEP has pressed to approve the development despite repeated legal setbacks, including an adverse Appellate Court ruling, and regulatory violations.
This overview of the past 10 years sheds light on how quickly government officials can act to approve projects that serve special interests instead of supporting projects and policy measures that improve our environment and the well-being of citizens in the state.