Christie Vetoes Minutes of Pinelands Commission, Slams 5 Percent Raise for Staff

Tom Johnson | April 10, 2014 | Energy & Environment
In harsh veto message, governor accuses commissioners of "conscious disregard of the fiscal realities" of Pinelands and state of New Jersey

Gov. Chris Christie
In a rare, if not unprecedented, move, Gov. Christie earlier this week quietly vetoed the minutes of last month’s meeting of the Pinelands Commission, harshly criticizing the commissioners for approving a five percent raise for its staff.

New Jersey governors have the right to veto the minutes of various authorities, thereby negating any action taken at the meeting, although it is seldom used. In this case, the governor’s veto effectively blocked the raises granted by the commission.

Environmentalists view his decision more as a payback for the commission’s decision in January not to approve a 22-mile natural gas pipeline through the heart of the Pinelands to fuel the B.L. England plant in Cape May.

“This is the governor trying to intimidate the Pinelands Commission and staff in retribution for the vote against the Pinelands pipeline,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Nonetheless, the project fits well with the Christie administration’s Energy Master Plan, which encourages the use of natural gas to provide electricity to customers in New Jersey and wants to expand the pipeline infrastructure to deliver the fuel to power plants and customers more easily.

The proposed project would convert a former coal plant scheduled to close under an order from the state Department of Environmental Protection to one fueled by less-polluting natural gas. It also would keep the power plant open in a region that could possibly experience a deficit of power supplies in the future, according to proponents.

But it also spurred enormous opposition from both environmental groups and from four former governors — Republicans and Democrats alike — who argued the $90 million project would compromise the integrity of the Pinelands.

In his veto message, Christie said the action by the commissioners “was made with conscious disregard of the fiscal realities of the Pinelands Commission specifically, the state of New Jersey’s in general.’’

Despite an anticipated shortfall in revenue collected by the commission, Christie said the commissioners diverted funds, including from the Pinelands Conservation Fund, which is dedicated to protecting land within the 1.1 million-acre preserve, one of the largest remaining tracts of open space along the Eastern Seaboard.

“This confiscation by the commissioners of public funds, whether from conservation funds or from the state appropriation, is a gross abuse of authority granted to them,’’ Christie said in his message.

With the commission failing to approve the project — deadlocked in a 7-7 vote at a January meeting — lawmakers and others have lobbied hard to get the project approved by the commission, in some cases by other means. The project is strongly supported by the business community.

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) is pushing for a reconsideration of the vote on the project, suggesting a waiver could be a viable option to approve the pipeline, arguing reliable energy and natural gas are essential to the region. A waiver would need to establish a compelling public need for the project, or demonstrate that there are no feasible alternatives.

With a couple of commissioners’ terms on the Pinelands Commission expired, new appointments by the governor’s office could sway the vote on the project, environmentalists fear. One of the commissioners whose term was up was prevented from voting on the project on still-unproven allegations of conflict of interest, although he clearly opposed it, and the other, whose term has expired, voted against the proposal.

“This is round one in laying the political groundwork to replace commissioners and reverse the pipeline rejection,’’ said Bill Wolfe, New Jersey director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “Obvious retaliation for pipeline vote.’’

South Jersey Gas, which is proposing to build the pipeline, said it has not yet decided what it will do to with its project. “I don’t foresee us making a decision anytime in the near future,’’ said Joanne Brigandi, a spokeswoman for the company.

B.L England already has shut down one of its coal units and has been ordered to shut down the other in May 2015. The facility is a familiar site for motorists traveling down the Garden State Parkway with its smokestacks on Great Egg Harbor easily visible from the highway.