Home > Uncategorized > It’s No “New Era Of Environmental Protection” In the Pinelands – “Another Abomination”

It’s No “New Era Of Environmental Protection” In the Pinelands – “Another Abomination”

Underhanded Christie Loyalist Executive Director Wittenberg Still There

Commission To Vote On Rollback of Public Rights To Challenge Decisions

Legal Appeals Used In Pipeline Battles To Be Eliminated

Time to lay groundwork for Gov. Murphy to block rollback via veto of minutes

New Jersey’s Pinelands Commission was once a respected, independent steward of a forest that filters the drinking water for millions in the region. But political manipulation has turned it into an ineffective agency that looks the other way when the preserve’s delicate balance is threatened.  ~~~ Philadelphia Inquirer editorial: “Christie bullied Pinelands panel to get his way (3/9/16)

Beyond those seats, the next governor will also have the authority to immediately change the chairman and will likely be able to influence whether the commission keeps or replaces its executive director, Nancy Wittenberg.  “Next governor expected to make substantial changes to NJ Pinelands Commission (Burlington County Times 8/27/17)

Despite the Murphy administration’s declaration of a “new era in environmental protection”, after 5 months of inaction by Gov. Murphy, the Pinelands Commission has quietly revived a proposal to strip the public of rights to administratively appeal decisions and require evidentiary hearings. (see vague allusion to a CMP amendment in the Agenda for June 8 meeting).

Here’s how Executive Director Wittenberg described the controversial CMP amendment:

Also on the agenda is the adoption of amendments to the Comprehensive Management Plan related to the definition of “Interested Party”. We have enclosed a resolution, an adoption notice dated May 31, 2018, and the September 18, 2017 rule proposal. At its December 12, 2017 meeting, the Commission decided to postpone adoption of these amendments until a detailed examination of the Federal Pinelands legislation could be completed in response to the concerns raised by many public commenters. The examination confirmed that neither the Federal Act nor the State Pinelands Protection Act authorize third party adjudicatory hearings, nor do they confer a broader right to such hearings than provided by the New Jersey Administrative Procedure Act. Therefore, we are now recommending the Commission proceed with adoption of the amendments.

It is shocking that Wittenberg is still serving as Executive Director under the Murphy administration. Does Climate Champion Gov. Murphy know, among other things, Wittenberg derailed efforts to address climate change?

There is no excuse for Gov. Murphy not to move Wittenberg out after her pattern of flagrant abuse of the public, her covert work in support of pipeline corporate interests, and manipulation of the Commission on behalf of Gov. Christie’s Office, and even behind the back of the Commission:

One current Commissioner (LLoyd) that opposed was forced to recuse for highly dubious conflicts of interest (see NY Times:  Fighting a Pipeline, but Feeling and Fearing Christie’s Influence (1/8/14)

Although, technically, under the Pinelands Protection Act, Wittenberg serves at the pleasure of the Commission, the Gov. appoints the Chairman and has the effective power to assure that she leaves, voluntarily or via formal Commission action.

Gov. Christie installed Wittenberg – Gov. Murphy can move her out and install his own leader.

The rollback proposal emerged in the wake of pipeline battles, where the public invoked these rights to administratively challenge the Commission’s approvals to create a real factual record on controversial permit decisions.

An expert directly contradicted Wittenberg’s claim that “neither the Federal Act nor the State Pinelands Protection Act authorize third party adjudicatory hearings, nor do they confer a broader right to such hearings than provided by the New Jersey Administrative Procedure Act.

This expert called the rollback “an abomination”, it is:

a right that has been recognized in the Pinelands regulations since their inception, has previously been accepted by the Commission staff and the AG (until the pipeline cases), and has been used from time to time to create a real factual record on controversial permit decisions.  Several groups and individuals challenging the pipelines have invoked this right.

Prior to the current crew taking over, neither the Commission nor the AG found that this CMP right conflicted with the APA restriction on evidentiary hearing rights, because they correctly believed the right is founded in the terms of the federal and state Pinelands statutes.

Regardless of whether the Commission passes the CMP amendment, Governor Murphy has the power to block the move by vetoing the minutes: (see NJSA 13:18A-5. – Pinelands Protection Act)

h. A true copy of the minutes of every meeting of the commission shall be prepared and forthwith delivered to the Governor. No action taken at such meeting by the commission shall have force or effect until 10 days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, after such copy of the minutes shall have been so delivered; provided, however, that no action taken with respect to the adoption of the comprehensive management plan, or any portion thereof, shall have force or effect until 30 days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, after such copy of the minutes shall have been so delivered. If, in said 10-day period, or 30-day period, as the case may be, the Governor returns such copy of the minutes with a veto of any action taken by the commission at such meeting, such action shall be null and void and of no force and effect.

Wittenberg has proven to be a savvy politician, so I assume she knows she has the votes to approve the CMP amendment or she would not have put it on the agenda and suffered an embarrassing defeat.

Therefore, approval by the Commission is highly likely so the public must demand that Gov. Murphy veto the minutes upon submission.

As part of that lobbying effort, folks should also demand – consistent with the “new era in environmental protection” rhetoric – that he fire Wittenberg.

Enough is enough.

Billboard outside DEP Trenton HQ

Billboard outside DEP Trenton HQ

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