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.
The 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.