Pinelands Commission – Sheds Scandal Like Water off a Duck’s Back
I fell in love with the Pinelands … The Comprehensive Management Plan(CMP) is like the Constitution. … If we keep straying from it [the CMP] we’re going to kill it. ~~~ (former) Pinelands Commissioner Robert Jackson (3/27/15)
In the first meeting after his decapitation by Gov. Christie and Senate President Sweeney, there was no tribute by the Pinelands Commission’s Policy & Implementation (P&I) Committee for former, deposed Commissioner Robert Jackson.
But, showing their true colors, like in the case of Commissioner Zeke Avery, the Commission did make haste to post the bio of his replacement on the Commission’s website, despite the fact that Bob Barr has not yet been sworn in yet and won’t officially become a Commissioner until the next full meeting of the Commission on April 10.
Interestingly, they left out the part of Barr’s bio where he served as Treasurer to the Cape May County Democrats and staff to Senator Van Drew (D-Cape May).
Jackson attended the hearing, from the audience, and spoke eloquently and was magnanimous, not bitter.
Jackson urged the public and Commissioners, rightly disgusted by the Trenton politics surrounding Barr’s appointment, not to take that out on him but to give the man a chance to listen, learn and grow into his Commission role, as Jackson said he did.
In stark contrast, Mr. Barr continued his lack of curiosity about the Pinelands and was absent -
Barr didn’t even attend the hearing to meet his new fellow Commissioner’s, find out what the P&I Committee actually does (he’s never been to a Pinelands Commission meeting) and meet the public who defend Pinelands preservation and the CMP.
I spoke after Jackson and focused on the emails and what I think are not only improper process, but actions by Wittenberg adn Roth that are unprofessional, unethical and warrant firing for insubordination.
Commissioner Earlen, playing the role of Commissioner Avery in his absence, responded by the same straw man claim that he encouraged the staff to communicate with applicants and that nothing unusual or inappropriate took place during the SJG MOA review.
Commissioner Lloyd disagreed, but limited his concerns to a lack of transparency and failure to include SJG communications in the administrative record.. Lloyd failed to note the inappropriate role of SJG, as a regulated entity, played in the process, the staff’s actions without authorization of knowledge of the Commission, the staff’s false public statements, and the excessive discretion under current MOA standard of “equivalent protection”.
Chairman Lohbauer also supported staff and created his won straw man, by claiming that “no violations of the CMP” occurred.
So, like water off a duck back, Wittenberg and Roth and the Govedrnor’s Office all dodge the scandal and all accountability.
We did learn one thing knew in response by Counselor Roth to Georgina Shanley’s question about the status of the SJG litigation.
Roth said that the litigation was handled by the AG’s office and that a “statement of items comprising the administrative record” and briefing schedule had not been developed yet or approved by the Court – this makes me question whether SJG is serious about the lawsuit. A statement comprising the administrative record should have been approved by now – what explains the delay?
- Actions Taken
1) MOA Policy Advisory Committee formed
Chairman Lohbauer began by announcing the new 7 member MOA Policy Advisory Committee to the Commission.
It is comprised on Commissioners Ashmum (Chair) and Galetta, LLoyd & McGlinchy. County and local rep, plus Fred Akers as the public rep.
There was no aggressive schedule of clear objective expressed.
Ashmum quickly made it clear that the public could “listen” to the Committee deliberate, but not provide public comments to it.
I and others objected to the lack of an ability to comment on the COmmittee’s deliberations, but Chairman Lohbauer refused to differ with Ashmum and said public comment could be provided when the full Commission considers the Committee’s recommendations.
Bad first step.
2) approval of controversial minutes
My remarks were summarized thusly:
Mr. Bill Wolfe recommended that the Commission impose an administrative moratorium on any waivers or MOAs until it performed a critical review of the status of “equivalent levels of protection” in an open and transparent way. He said this was a recommendation he had made during the discussions of the South Jersey Gas (SJ Gas) application in July 2013. He said the documents posted on the Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s (PPA’s) web site reveal that Commission staff had engaged with the applicant starting back in 2012. Also, he described other information that he characterized as showing conflicts. He said the Committee’s upcoming closed session this morning would not constrain him from speaking about legal concerns related to the MOA. He said the public has no confidence in the Commission’s Executive Director or the Counselor due to the revelations in the posted documents. He said the Commission needs to ask for whom its staff works. There had been ongoing conversations with the governor’s office and the Board of Public Utilities (BPU). Mr. Wolfe said the Executive Director is supposed to review staff recommendations but that process was tainted by the interjection of SJ Gas. Referencing correspondence between SJ Gas and the Commission’s counselor asking about the veracity of a statement he had made, Mr. Wolfe said he wanted his comments reviewed by staff, not by the applicant. Mr. Wolfe said the recusal process for Ed Lloyd (at the time of the vote on the SJ Gas application) had been reviewed by the New York Times and emails indicated that the Governor’s Authorities Unit had been involved in near real time. He said decisions are being made not by the Commission but by Trenton.
3) Climate Change – Head in the sand posture continues
Chairman Lohbauer pulled me aside before the meeting began to talk – he apologized for the fact that the Commission did not provide a response to my March 13, 2015 request for the Commission to begin addressing cliamnte change. He said he assumed that Director Wittenberg has replied.
I repeated that request during Friday’s P&I meeting, noting that the Commission was diverting scarce staff resources and time to promote economic development projects instead of focusing on the most critical threat facing the Pinelands resources and that their own science had already documented impacts from climate change.
I also noted that the CMP already included energy efficiency standards and comprehensive regulations that discouraged solar installations, so energy and climate issues were already within the scope of the CMP and the policy was bizarre situation: strict regulations to discourage solar, while no regulation of climate and staff promote fossil infrastructure like the SJG pipeline.
Director Wittenberg responded that she would provide a written reply soon.
4) Black Run Watershed – Forest preservation or development scheme?
Staff made a presentation to the P&I Committee on the Black Run watershed, in portions of Evesham and undisturbed and preserved forested lands in Medford.
The plan was designed to reflect a 2006 transfer of development plan developed by Medford and Evesham.
The plan involves protection of high water quality by re-designation of 4,000 acres of high quality forested lands from rural development area to Forest Area, reduce allowable development density from 1 unit per 3.2 acres to 1 unit per 25 acres (for a total maximum of just 70 units), and expand the boundaries of thousands of acres permanently preserved ecologically signifiant lands.
If that sounds too good to be true, you are right.
Staff found that
- the current rural development designation “demoes not reflect the ecological vale of the area”
- the current rural development designation ”continues to crate unrealistic development expectations”
- a Forest Area resignation would reflect the current CMP standards for Forest Area,
Despite those findings, in a complete contradiction to the above findings, staff also found that Forest Area re-designation would result in:
significant, uncompensated loss of property-owner’s value
How can the reduction of development potential be “significant” if the site has significant environmental and regulatory constraints to development at the allowable RDA density of 3.2 units per acre?
Why is staff’s recommendation so heavily influenced by greatly exaggerated diminution i property value?
Based what appears to be primarily on this “significant uncompensated loss of property-owner’s value”, the plan option recommended by staff would transfer the development density reduced in the Forest Area to a 175 acre parcel o the Evesham border with Voorhees Township. That parcel is currently zoned for 55 units – the new density transfer would allow 325 units.
Very bad deal – if the development potential at the current forested land is severely contained and is a maximum of 70 units, then there is no way 325 new units is a good plan.
Plus, the proposed option violates the current CMP standards regarding wastewater management.
Why is staff recommending options that violate the current CMP?
As Commissioner Jackson said:
If we keep straying from it [the CMP] we’re going to kill it.
Commissioner Ashmum raised concerns that the staff presentation lacked the full history of the Medform Evesham Plan and a discussion of all the data, objectives, and programs that plan was based on.
Other Commissioners agreed and the staff recommendations thankfully were tabled for reconsideration at the new P&I meeting.
This is something to keep an eye on.
5) New Agricultural “Pilot” – Expanded economic development opportunities
The Commission created a new Agriculture Committee and its first task will be to consider how to respond to legislative threats, led by Senator Lesniak an Assembly Democrat Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) – the same District 1 of SJG pipeline champions Senator Van Drew and Assebmlyman Fiocchi adn new Commissioner Barr.
The issue arose out of the Tuckahoe sod farm soccer tournament controversy.
Another political concession by the Commission that undermines the CMP.
As Commissioner Jackson said:
If we keep straying from it [the CMP] we’re going to kill it.