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Groundhog Day at the Pinelands Commission

Friday, December 9th, 2016
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Today is the 1st monthly meeting of the Pinelands Commission since the Nov. 7th Court decision that sent the SJ Gas Pipeline project back to them – stating that the Commission staff and the Board of Public Utilities had improperly approved the project without taking a full vote of the Commission.

Crowd at the Pinelands Commission in December 2013

IRONICALLY – 3 yrs ago today the Pinelands Commission held a public hearing on the SJ Gas Pipeline project when it came around the first time. Hundreds of people showed up to speak out against the project. The room was too small and many people were stuck in the lobby unable to get in the room.

During 2013-2014 over 20,000 people testified, wrote letters, made public comment and signed petitions opposing this project. Because we all believe in equal and fair enforcement of the rules that protect our land and water and air.

Then in January 2014 the Commission voted on the project and deadlocked 7 to 7 (1 Commissioner had to recuse himself, but that is another story). The South Jersey Gas Pipeline project failed. The Commissioners and the Commission staff clearly stated in many documents that IT VIOLATED THE RULES THAT PROTECT THE PINELANDS.


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So why are we still here?

SJ Gas keeps trying to find a way around Pinelands rules that have existed since 1981. Rules that clearly state infrastructure projects like this are not permitted in the forest area unless “intended to primarily serve the needs of the Pinelands” N.J.A.C. 7:50-5.23. These rules exist in part to prevent the Pinelands from becoming a super highway for gas pipelines and other infrastructure trying to get the coast or to another location. The Pinelands is a fragile, rare ecosystem to be valued and enjoyed – not a transit area.

In 2015 South Jersey Gas resubmitted the same application with “new” information showing that now it “meets the needs of the Pinelands”. This is the same project – we will not be fooled and we won’t be worn down by all the years of work that this project has already consumed.

Today so many people showed up at the Pinelands Commission’s regular monthly meeting that there was no room to park.  Pro-pipeline advocates packed the room. Pipeline opponents were crowded into the lobby.

How could the Commission not be aware that people would show up?

Why would they not have planned ahead?  It is like Groundhog Day – just like Dec. 9, 2013.

Today the Commission moved into closed session before public comment – and according to the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, everyone who was in the meeting room was asked to leave and more than 100 people were told they can go home and be called if they want to come back.

No matter what the Commission MUST vote on the project, there MUST be a public hearing and they MUST vote to deny the project. It isn’t the job of the Commission to determine energy policy or to support the re-powering of a power plant (that could be underwater in the next 50 years due to sea level rise anyway).

It is very simple. The project violates the rules and must be denied.  Learn more here. Sign up on our email list so we can keep you informed.

UPDATED 12.9.16 at 7pm:

PUBLIC HEARING ANNOUNCED
January 24, 2017 at 9:30 am

The Pinelands Commission will hold a public hearing on January 24, 2017 at 9:30 am at the Ocean Acres Community Center located at 489 Nautilus Drive, Manahawkin, New Jersey 08050.  Learn more on their webpage.

We are very disappointed that they are not holding the meeting in the evening.  It is completely unfair to people who work during the day or would need to find child care.  They know how many people are opposed to this project.

For people who can’t attend the public hearing you will be able to submit comments by mail or email.

Comments may be sent via the following:

Mail:   New Jersey Pinelands Commission
P.O. Box 359
New Lisbon, New Jersey 08064

Email:  info@njpines.state.nj.us

You can also attend the next regular Pinelands Commission meeting on January 13, 2017 at 9:30 a.m.  The Pinelands Commission Offices are located at 15 Springfield Road in Pemberton Township NJ.

Make sure you are on our email list so we can keep you informed in a timely fashion.

You can find information on the Pinelands Commission website about monthly meetings (including agendas) and public hearings. You can also sign up on their email list so you are notified of upcoming events. Here is their website.

State of the Pinelands: The Year in Review

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
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by Ernest Cozens

A view of Wharton State Forest and beyond in the heart of the Pinelands by Ernest Cozens.

It always amazes me that in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation, we have the largest open space on the eastern seaboard between Maine and the Florida Everglades. The 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve takes up about 22% of the landmass in New Jersey and is a recreational resource for more than 22 million people living within 60 miles of its boundaries.  Its forests, rivers, wetlands, agricultural areas and rural villages are a huge part of New Jersey’s identity.  It is hard to imagine what New Jersey would be like without it.

The Pinelands National Reserve is our country’s first National Reserve – created with the passage of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978.  It was created in order to “protect, preserve and enhance the significant values of the land and water resources of the Pinelands area.”  The federal legislation directed the state of New Jersey to establish a planning entity (the Pinelands Commission) that would develop a Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) for the Pinelands.  The CMP designates areas for conservation and areas for development and is supposed to do this in a way that protects the health of the ecosystem.

Nasa Jan 2016 snowstorm cropped

An outline of the Pinelands can be seen during the January 2016 snowstorm in this photo from NASA.

These boundaries have been in place for 35 years and have done a pretty good job protecting the wild forests and pristine waters of the Pinelands.  This region will only survive if this plan is respected year after year keeping development out of these last precious areas.  That, however, is getting harder to do.

We just released our annual State of the Pinelands report and it highlights the challenges of balancing human use and preservation of the Pinelands National Reserve.  One of the issues highlighted in this year’s report is the failure of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to establish a plan to protect Wharton State Forest from the damages of illegal off-road vehicle use.

Wharton State Forest is the largest single tract of land in the New Jersey State Park System and is located in the heart of the Pinelands Preservation Area – the area that is supposed to have the highest level of protection.  Managing motorized access could serve as a model for other publically owned land in the state.  The DEP released a Motorized Access Plan in August 2015 that designated some areas for vehicular use and some areas for hiking, biking and horseback riding due to the sensitive nature of habitat.  Vocal criticism followed the release of the DEP’s plan for Wharton and now we fear they will take no action in the foreseeable future to implement any plan to safeguard the natural resources that they are charged with protecting.

The construction of high pressure natural gas pipelines through protected areas in the Pinelands is another major threat identified in this year’s report.  Two proposals from two different companies, New Jersey Natural Gas and South Jersey Gas, are poised to undo more that 35 years of Pinelands protection if approved.

Both natural gas pipelines violate the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP).  Both are asking their ratepayers to foot the bill for a project that they have yet to prove is necessary to meet their stated purposes.  Perhaps even worse, the Pinelands Commission has refused to officially rule on either project leaving the question of compliance with Pinelands rules in a bureaucratic no man’s land.  This sets a terrible precedent for an independent state agency that the public depends on to “preserve, protect and enhance the natural and cultural resources of the Pinelands National Reserve.”

This is a critical moment for the survival of New Jersey’s Pinelands.  This report shows that it is getting harder to keep inappropriate development out of areas that were set aside for protection by the Pinelands Plan over 35 years ago.  When we allow Pinelands rules to be waived or ignored “just this time” we sacrifice the very foundation on which protection of the Pinelands is based.  New Jersey’s residents can’t afford to be silent – the only way the Pinelands will survive is if citizens pressure our state government relentlessly to protect it.

Read the State of the Pinelands report on our website.  Pinelands Preservation Alliance members will receive a copy of this report in the mail.

Citations
National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, page 2, Sec. 471i. Pine Barrens Area, New Jersey.

Pinelands Preservation Alliance Releases Annual State of the Pinelands Report

Monday, December 22nd, 2014
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On December 15, 2014 the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) released its 2014 State of the Pinelands Report.  This past year has shown just how crucially the Pinelands depends on the support and will of two key players: the state Pinelands Commission and the governor of the day.  We discuss the South Jersey Gas pipeline issue at length in this year’s State of the Pinelands Report because it points out how Pinelands protections were almost subverted for a major development project and remain very much at risk.

State of the Pinelands Report_2014 cover imageThe report focuses on the state of Pinelands preservation and rates how specific actions of government agencies have either helped or harmed the Pinelands during the past twelve months. The report rates the actions of government officials and agencies that include the governor, Pinelands Commission, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), New Jersey State Legislature, local government, and other governmental agencies. Since the fate of the Pinelands rests primarily with decisions by government, the public needs a way to hold these agencies accountable for their performance through an annual report.

PPA believes there is real cause for concern in the actions of government agencies responsible for safeguarding the Pinelands.

South Jersey Gas Pipeline Still an Issue

The most well-know threat to the integrity of the Pinelands protection rules over the past year is the South Jersey Gas pipeline issue.  The good news was that in January 2014 the Pinelands Commission did not approve the special deal that was presented to authorize the pipeline in direct violation of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP).  But the Commission’s vote was 7-7 — evenly split.  “That is cause for profound concern.  This should have been an easy decision since the CMP is not ambiguous in barring this kind of new infrastructure in the Pinelands Forest Area,” states Carleton Montgomery, PPA’s executive director, in his introduction to the report.

And the threat still lingers.  South Jersey Gas has stated in multiple forums that it intends to get the pipeline built, despite the Commission’s decision.  Shortly after the 7-7 vote the governor submitted two nominations to replace sitting members of the Pinelands Commission who had voted “no” to the deal.

Stacking the Deck on the Commission

“These nominations, which are still pending before the state Senate for confirmation, are a transparent effort to pack the Pinelands Commission with reliable ‘yes’ votes for a pipeline deal that directly violates the protections of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan,” Montgomery explains.  “It is up to the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to stop this assault on the Pinelands and good government.”

“These nominations are an effort to pack the Pinelands Commission with reliable ‘yes’ votes for a pipeline deal that directly violates the protections of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.” — Carleton Montgomery, PPA

Despite a number of environmental setbacks, some good initiatives and outcomes came about this past year. The annual Pinelands Short Course sponsored by the Commission continues to grow in popularity. Since its inception the Short Course has provided a wonderful opportunity for people to learn more about unique natural, historic, and cultural aspects of the Pine Barrens. The Short Course is something that the Commission takes great pride in, and deservedly so.

The Commission also took action to prevent electronic billboard signs from being placed in the more environmentally sensitive areas of the Pinelands when it required Monroe Township in Gloucester County to change the ordinance that would have allowed their placement in these areas.

Crackdown on Illegal Dumping

This past year the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection launched a crackdown on illegal dumping with the support of the State Police and Attorney General’s office.  According the DEP this program has resulted in 28 enforcement actions and more than $450,000 worth of pending fines.  Strategically deployed motion detector cameras have been set up in select parks and wildlife management areas to help catch violators.  The DEP manages over 813,000 acres in the state of New Jersey with the largest tracts of lands being in the Pinelands.

Funding for Open Space

This year’s report also recognizes the great work of the state legislature to pass a measure allowing New Jersey residents to vote on funding for preserving parks, open space, historic sites, farmland and flood-prone areas.  The measure passed overwhelmingly on November 4, 2014.  This was the 14th open space ballot question approved by New Jersey voters since the 1961.

But in addition to the issues surrounding the South Jersey Gas pipeline the report notes some important setbacks by municipalities and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The townships of Monroe, Stafford and Manchester continued to take actions to develop land that was previously preserved as open space for their residents.  In each case the proposed development will impact habitat for plants and animals and reduce the amount of useable open space for its residents.  These issues will only get more complicated as New Jersey becomes more populated.

The DEP has failed to release the updated Statewide Water Supply Plan.  The “current” plan is 18 years old despite the fact that five year updates are required by law.  The purpose of the Plan is to improve water supply capacity, investigate the status of major aquifers and plan for future water supply needs.  The time has long come and gone for this plan to be released.

MOA’s Weakening the CMP

One of the fundamental weaknesses that PPA identifies is in the way that the Pinelands Commission seems now to view is own regulations. Over the past several years, there has been a slow shift in philosophy from applying the Pinelands CMP as rules with regulatory teeth, to seeing the CMP as guidelines only, to be negotiated around in deference to developers and ratable-chasing local governments.

This disrespect for its own rules can be seen in the Pinelands Commission’s Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) process that it increasingly uses to allow private developers, municipal and county governments to avoid basic Pinelands environmental protections in order to promote profit-driven new development that does not meet Pinelands rules. This is the waiver method which the Pinelands Commission staff wants the Commissioners to use in approving the natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands Forest Area.

“This year’s report once again points out how the MOA process can be used for the wrong reasons and, in doing so, undermine respect for the Pinelands Commission and harm natural resources,” stated Richard Bizub, Director for Water Programs for PPA.

The past few years have cemented PPA’s conviction that if the Pinelands is going to survive as a unique place for future generations, it is going to require more than government regulations and PPA watching over the Pinelands Commission.

“The long-term survival of the Pinelands is going to take a citizenry committed to holding our elected and appointed officials’ feet to the fire. And perhaps most of all, it is going to require a new generation of citizen activists to accomplish this important task,” stated Bizub.

PPA hopes this eighth annual State of the Pinelands report will both inform and provoke, all with the good intentions of protecting the Pinelands for current and future generations.

The complete report is available and can be faxed or emailed upon request.  For more information please contact PPA at 609-859-8860.