Critics Accuse Christie of Trying to Remake Pinelands Panel in His Own Image

Deadlocked vote on natural gas pipeline through preserve still seen as key component to administration's actions

B.L. England power plant
Gov. Chris Christie yesterday nominated two new members of the Pinelands Commission, a move that some environmentalists believe could more closely align the agency with the administration’s policies.

The nominations of two new public members would, if approved, replace two Pinelands commissioners who voted against a controversial 22-mile natural gas pipeline through the heart of the more than 1-million-acre reserve to allow the former B.L. England Plant in Cape May to convert to that fuel.

The $90 million project would allow the plant, now owned by Rockland Capital, to remain open, providing needed electricity to a region where power supplies to ensure reliability of the grid are in question, according to proponents.

But critics had a different view.

“This is alarming,’’ said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, which opposed the project. “The only inference I can draw given the timing and what’s been happening is this is going to help Rockland Capital get their pipeline.’’

The two nominees are Dennis Roohr from Cookstown, the Republican mayor of New Hanover Township, and Robert Barr of Ocean City, the board director of the Ocean City Community Association. They would replace D’Arcy Green and Robert Jackson, who were among the seven Pineland commissioners who opposed the project in a 7-7 vote in January.

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, defended the nominations, saying they were two objectively qualified individuals who have deep roots and extensive service in their communities.

“Suggesting otherwise is not only disrespectful to Mr. Barr and Mr. Roohr, it is another sign that this is just more baseless nonsense from overwrought partisans who oppose any action by this administration, no matter how factual the policy is,’’ Roberts said.

But it was not only environmentalists who lobbied against the pipeline project. Four former governors—two Democrats (Brendan Byrne and Jim Florio) and two Republicans (Tom Kean and Christine Whitman) — also urged the commission to reject the pipeline. They argued it would threaten the integrity of the Pinelands, one of the last remaining tracts of open space along the Eastern Seaboard.

Christie has never come out publicly in support of the project, but it fits well with an Energy Master Plan developed by the administration, which promotes greater use of natural gas in generating electricity and expansion of natural gas pipelines to make that happen.

However, in a rare action, Christie vetoed the minutes of a Pinelands Commission meeting that would have approved pay raises for staff at the agency.

Montgomery argued that when the commissioners refused to approve the pipeline project, they voted to apply the Pinelands commission the way “it is written in black and white’’ (according to the letter of the law).

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the appointments threaten the commission.

“The governor is starting to get rid of all the commissioners who opposed the pipeline and this is the beginning of that purge,’’ he said. “He is going to be stacking the commission with his political cronies and do the same thing with the Pinelands as he did with the Highlands.’’

A number of environmentalists have been unhappy with many of the governor’s appointments to the Highlands Council, which oversees development in a vast area of northwest New Jersey that supplies drinking water to millions of residents.