It’s been a bit since things went down at the Pinelands Commission and the MOA (memorandum of agreement) with South Jersey Gas failed to pass. Just a recap – there are a lot of angry folks, among them, apparently the governor’s office, hence his move to replace two “no” votes with folks who will more than likely vote “yes.” It seems pretty obvious, anyway, that that is what is going on.The first Commissioner,  to get the boot for her “no” vote was Cumberland County’s Leslie Ficcaglia. The Freeholders unceremoniously dumped her in favor of someone who more than likely will vote in favor of the pipeline. She was replaced by Jane Jannarone, a realtor and former Cumberland County Freeholder.

The Pinelands Commission has 15 Commissioners-7 are appointed by the Freeholders of the 7 Pinelands Counties, 7 are appointed by the governor, and 1 is appointed by the Department of the Interior. Governor Christie called on Mr. Dennis Roohr and Mr. Robert Barr to serve on the Commission to replace Commissioners Robert Jackson and D’Arcy Rohan Green, both of whom voted “no” on the MOA for the South Jersey Gas pipeline.

Mr. Roohr is currently the mayor of New Hanover Township in Burlington County. Sitting there for the interrogation by the Senate members of the Judiciary Committee, I couldn’t help but break out into a sweat for him. He clearly had no inkling about what he was getting into, and couldn’t have come more unprepared than if he had gotten hit on the head and suffered amnesia. Some part of me kept thinking he’s playing “dumb like a fox.” How could one be so completely ignorant of the BIGGEST issue facing the Pinelands Commission since the MOA allowing Seneca High School to be built in the Pinelands????

Mr. Barr is, for lack of better words, a lackey for Senator Van Drew. He “volunteers” in the office of the state senator and finds himself on various boards that have nothing at all, it would seem, to do with his strong interest in the rights of the physically disabled or the intellectually disabled. The Pinelands Commission is also a bit divergent of another interest of his which seems to be energy. He sat on the Ocean City Utilities Committee from 2009-2011. Not that he can’t branch out into other areas of interest, but it does seem suspect that the Pinelands Commission, now at conflict with Van Drew’s energy interests, would be what he is delving into. Mr. Barr, like Mr. Roohr before him, did go on about how much he loved the Pinelands. Especially the smell. Hmm.

Anyway, from 2009 until 2011 he sat on the Ocean City Utilities Committee, which at the time rejected any notion of alternative sources of energy. It seems, from a former committee member who served during Barr’s tour there, as tho the leadership on that committee was set on quashing any talk of adding solar or wind as a way of diversifying and/or providing any relief to the grid.

Fortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided NOT to take a vote on the two candidates, so their nominations did NOT move forward. Not at the moment, anyway. (The article linked above can be found in it’s entirety BELOW Senator Van Drew’s opinion conceding the “need” for the Pinelands Commission to revisit their decision)

Just in case folks wonder what Van Drew thinks, here’s a copy of his op-ed in the Atlantic City Press (link to the article can be clicked on above in Van Drew’s highlighted name)-

From Senator Van Drew:

The Pinelands Commission’s rejection of a proposal to build a natural-gas pipeline to the B.L. England Generating Station in Beesleys Point was a major setback for South Jersey that – if not reversed – could have repercussions for years to come.

For the good of our region, the Pinelands Commission must reconsider this project, and I am committed to doing everything I can to make sure that happens. In the interim, I hope everyone involved will regroup and really consider the potential impact of not advancing the pipeline project. The fact is that we are at a crossroads when it comes to our economic and energy future, and this project is a major component in securing a stronger and more prosperous South Jersey.

Let me say first that I believe strongly that the pinelands need to be protected. I have long been an advocate for its preservation and will continue to support the protection of this area. However, it is important to keep in mind that this project would consist of putting a two-foot-wide natural gas pipeline underground along the right-of-way of a state highway. It would not result in a loss of wildlife, trees, or other vegetation, as some have suggested. It would not harm the pinelands in any way.

Not moving forward, however, could prove devastating. The Department of Environmental Protection recently ordered that the B.L. England plant cease burning coal. The plant employs nearly 100 people whose jobs would be lost should the pipeline project not come to fruition and the plant be forced to close. The project would also create an additional 75 construction jobs. To lose these jobs in such an economically depressed area of the state would cause incredible harm.

Losing the plant would also result in property-tax increases. The loss of a major ratable would mean an increase in property taxes in Upper Township and across the county. In addition, Upper Township would lose the energy receipts taxes that it receives from the plant. In effect, property taxes would go up for everyone in the county, but it would be a double hit for residents locally.

This is also about ensuring a reliable and sustainable source of energy in our region. I strongly believe in wind and solar. But until these and other sources of alternative energy are viable enough to support our needs, we must still rely upon other, more-traditional energy sources. Natural gas is one of the cleaner sources available, as it is significantly cleaner than coal. Converting the plant to natural gas would result in many fewer toxic and greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there is currently only one line for natural gas running to Cape May County. If anything should happen to that pipeline, our entire area could potentially be without gas to heat our homes or cook our meals for several months until it could be repaired. Just imagine the situation we would have been in if that had happened this winter.

The proposed pipeline is a common-sense, clean and efficient way to increase our position on the energy grid. It is a way to ensure economic development in an area of the state with some of the highest unemployment and lowest per-capita income in the country and to sustain and create desperately needed jobs.

We have one of the worst job markets around and have been consistently at the bottom in both graduation and health statistics. We are losing more of our young people every year as they move away from this region. We need to come up with bold new ideas to stimulate our year-round economy. This project will not do that in one fell swoop, but it would be a significant step in the right direction.

The Pinelands Commission’s rejection of this project was extreme. I do value the environment, and as mayor of a rural township for many years, I was committed to open space, farmland preservation and ensuring that the zoning of my township was appropriate. However, I believe people should be able to stay in the area, to both live and work here.

That is why I am going to do my level best to ensure this pipeline project happens.

Democratic state Sen. Jeff Van Drew is chairman of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee. He represents the 1st Legislative District, which includes Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties.

 

Article concerning Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision, or lack of-

 

Surprising turn in Pinelands pipeline battle

Members of the Sierra Club and other groups protest the proposed Pinelands pipeline.
Members of the Sierra Club and other groups protest the proposed Pinelands pipeline. (DALE GERHARD / The Press of Atlantic City)

POSTED: October 21, 2014

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision last week to hold up Gov. Christie’s two nominations to the Pinelands Commission surprised many watching the process, and had environmental groups declaring a victory.

“We are going to hold the vote,” State Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari, the chairman, declared with a bang of his gavel seconds after Robert S. Barr and Dennis Roohr finished answering questions Thursday.

“I was surprised,” said Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, adding that Scutari had said at the start of the hearing he would call for a vote.

Rhoads and other environmental leaders chalked up the turn of events to their lobbying. They told lawmakers they believed the nominees were chosen to reverse a previous commission vote denying permission for a gas pipeline through protected Pinelands.

“My take was that a number of senators were very concerned that these nominations were an attempt by the governor to get the pipeline through,” she said, referring to an effort by South Jersey Gas to win a waiver from the Pinelands Commission to build 10 miles of the 22-mile-long gas pipeline through protected forest.

“We won today,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “It was a victory for the Pinelands and democracy.”

Chris O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said he believed Christie had been trying to stack the Pinelands Commission and “the deal fell flat on its face.”

But at least one avid supporter of the project suggested the anti-pipeline groups’ joy might be short-lived.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May) said Friday that he had not heard from senators on the Judiciary Committee why the nominations were being held up, but that he anticipated the committee would take a vote on the two nominees within six weeks.

And Patrick Murray, a pollster and political analyst at Monmouth University, noted that environmental concerns had ebbed in New Jersey in recent years. Environmental causes loom far larger in close Democratic primaries than they do among Republicans, he said.

As for the Republican Christie, “there’s no political pressure for him to pay,” said Murray, whose state polls show New Jersey voters have been far more concerned in recent years about jobs and property taxes than the environment.

Scutari and other committee members did not return calls requesting an explanation of the panel’s action.

During the questioning, however, Scutari made clear he knew the political backdrop when he referred to assertions that the two nominations were a “de facto maneuver to change the previous vote” on the pipeline.

In January the commission voted, 7-7 with one recusal, to reject the project, which would have violated the commission’s comprehensive management plan barring new utilities in protected areas unless they primarily served local residents.

The pipeline would serve the B.L. England electrical generation plant in Cape May County.

In May, Christie nominated Roohr, a farmer and Republican mayor of New Hanover Township, and Barr, secretary of the Cape May County Democratic Committee, to replace two commissioners who voted against the pipeline project.

Christie’s spokesman, Kevin Roberts, who has dismissed as “baseless nonsense” assertions that the governor wanted to stack the commission, did not return a request for comment on the legislative committee’s decision to put off a vote on the appointees.

But at Thursday’s hearing, several senators seemed baffled by the governor’s selection process.

“Do you have a position on the pipeline?” State Sen. Kip Bateman (R., Somerset) asked Roohr at the start of the hearing.

“No sir, I do not,” Roohr replied, adding that he knew nothing about the pipeline proposal except that it had been rejected “and it’s a company called South Jersey.”

When Bateman expressed surprise at Roohr’s unfamiliarity with the pipeline, Roohr said he felt he should not study any issues before the commission so as not to prejudice his views on a hypothetical situation if appointed.

“I don’t think it’s hypothetical,” responded Bateman, who called the pipeline “the biggest issue to hit the Pinelands [preserve] since it was created” in 1978.

“For you to come here and not have an opinion I find very disturbing,” he said, to applause from some in attendance.

Under questioning by State Sens. Nia Gill (D., Essex) and Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), Roohr said he did not know why he had been chosen to serve on the commission. He said he had received a phone call early in the year from a Christie aide informing him he would be nominated.

“Were you picked for vast environmental experience? For your political leanings?” asked Weinberg. “What was the reason your name was chosen? Might you have said, ‘Why me?’ ”

“The call was very brief,” Roohr told her. “They said, ‘If you were nominated, would you accept?’ ” He said if he had been asked why he wished to serve, he would have replied, “I have been a steward of the land all my life.”

Roohr said that in several subsequent phone calls from Christie aides he was never asked about his knowledge of environmental or energy issues, or to take a position on the pipeline.

The questioning of Barr was shorter. He said he believed Christie had nominated him at the request of Van Drew, for whom he had worked as a volunteer and to whom he had expressed interest years earlier in working on an important state board.

“Did they ask your qualifications?” Gill asked.

“No, ma’am,” Barr said.

“Did they discuss your prior knowledge of the Pinelands?” Gill asked.

“No,” he said, and hr answered “no” repeatedly as she asked whether Christie’s aides had queried him on policy questions, energy questions, or “what you would bring” to the Pinelands Commission.

Like Roohr, he said there was never any discussion of the pipeline.

Despite the skeptical tone of the senators, and the accusations of “stacking” by environmental organizations, Murray said he believed Christie had little to fear by way of a political backlash.

And, in a reference to Christie’s perceived presidential ambitions, added, “I’m pretty sure the Republican caucus-goers in Iowa are not concerned about the environment, and that colors everything.”

doreilly@phillynews.com

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