The NJ Pinelands Commission on Friday approved construction of a 22-mile natural gas pipeline through the Pine Barrens, home to numerous rare species and filter for some of the purest drinking water in the country. The approval represented a switch in policy attributed to Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees. And now environmentalists, conservationists and others are concerned the same thing will happen to the NJ Highlands, as Christie has stacked the Highlands Commission with pro-development members.
The Commission is a legal entity charged with implementing the Highlands Act, passed in 2004 to protect an ecologically significant region that also supplies drinking water to 5 million state residents. The Act required the development of a Regional Master Plan, which was completed in 2008.
The Commission thus is responsible for overseeing the master plan, and that is where the politics come in. Eight of its 14 members were appointed by Christie, who has made it no secret that he sees development, and not preservation, as the priority in the region, and in keeping with our current political climate, they want to change the master plan to favor developers.
Former Sussex County Freeholder Richard Volden, a Republican appointed by Christie, is on the committee looking at possible changes and, for example, is looking askance at “the 2008 regional master plan's stipulation of a 1,000-foot buffer zone for building near vernal pools.”
In response, environmental organizations such as the Highlands Coalition are trying to stall any action on changing the Master Plan until next year. All Highlands Council members are holdovers whose appointments have already expired, they note, and Christie will be out of office.
The hope is that New Jerseyans will elect a Democratic governor who will in turn make appointments to the Highlands Council based on the appointees commitment to environmental sanity and safe drinking water for millions of New Jerseyans.