Will Third Time Be the Charm for Controversial Nominee to Pinelands Commission?

Absence of key panel member could mean OK for nominee turned down twice by Senate Judiciary Committee

Credit: Pinelands Preservation Alliance
Colliers Mill Pond Pinelands
For the third time in less than six months, a controversial nominee to the Pinelands Commission comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. The panel has twice before refused to approve his nomination.

This time may turn out differently. Opponents to the appointment of Robert Barr worry that Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), a key member of the committee who opposed the nominee in the past, is not expected to attend the meeting, a possibility that could allow the nomination to move forward.

In all likelihood, however, he will be replaced by another senator, presumably more favorable to the nomination, an option occasionally used by legislators to advance a bill or measure they support.

The potential appointment of Ocean City’s Barr is viewed by conservationists as potentially tipping the balance of the commission to approve a 22-mile natural gas pipeline through the heart of the Pinelands, a project opposed by four former governors, among others.

If approved by the Senate, Barr would replace a commissioner who voted to block the pipeline. The vote was split among the members, but failed to receive enough support to move forward.

Barr is one of only two nominees before the committee today. His approval by the panel would likely be eclipsed by Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address, according to critics of the nomination.

Perhaps more importantly, Barr’s appointment could affect decisions by the Pinelands Commission, which oversees a host of regional planning issues governing the 1.1-million-acre preserve.

“This is a deliberate attempt to subvert the Pinelands Act and the actions of the Pinelands Commission,’’ said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “This issue is about more than the pipeline,’’ he said. “It’s about the future of the Pinelands.’’

The preserve is the largest remaining tract of open space from Maine to the Florida Everglades, home to endangered species found nowhere else in the world.

Part of the concern raised by the nomination is that Gov. Chris Christie’s latest appointment to the commission will undermine regional planning — an issue for conservationists, who believe regional-planning strategies have been eroded in the Highlands and Hackensack Meadowlands.

For his part, Barr has been noncommittal on the pipeline in his appearances before the committee. The project would deliver gas from South Jersey Gas to the B.L. England plant in upper Cape May County.

His refusal to take a stand on the project upset some senators, leading them to refuse to move the nomination forward.

Many business interests and lawmakers in South Jersey support the $90 million project. They say the pipeline is crucial to providing reliability to the region, particularly with the expected closure of the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in 2019.

The Christie administration has backed the project, which aligns with goals set in its Energy Master Plan calling for more natural-gas pipelines and more reliance on the fuel to power generating plants in New Jersey.