In a setback to a planned new gas pipeline through the Pinelands, a state appeals court yesterday held up the project saying it moved forward without the proper approval.
The three-judge panel unanimously remanded the 22-mile project by South Jersey Gas back to the Pinelands Commission and the state Board of Public Utilities, both of which approved the proposal over heated opposition from environmentalists and four former governors last year.
In sending the case back to the two agencies, the courts decided the issue on essentially a procedural matter, not the merits of the project, which critics argued would compromise the integrity of a comprehensive plan adopted to protect the more than one million acre Pinelands National Reserve.
The pipeline is perhaps the most controversial of more than a dozen similar projects that have been proposed, approved, or are pending around the state to bolster the natural-gas infrastructure — a key goal of the Christie administration.
The pipeline would cut through parts of the Pinelands, ending at the B.L. England power plant in northern Cape May County, where the fuel would replace coal to generate electricity for the owner, R.C. Cape May Holdings L.L.C.
In its 32-page decision, the court remanded the case to the two agencies based on a decision by the executive director of the Pinelands Commission issuing a written letter allowing the project to move forward, saying the project complied with the agency’s Comprehensive Management Plan.
The court ruled “the CMP does not confer on the executive director or the commission’s staff the authority to render final decisions on CMP compliance in these circumstances.’’ Instead, the court ordered the commission to review and make a final decision on the project.
It also remanded the case to the BPU, saying its final decision on the project must await approval by the Pinelands Commission.
The appeals were filed by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, and Environment New Jersey — all of whom applauded the decision. Three of the four former governors — Brendan Byrne, James Florio, and Christine Todd Whitman — also joined the case.
“The decision sets a fundamental precedent that the Pinelands Commission must review developments in the Pinelands and find compliance with Pinelands protection rules before these rules go forward,’’ said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the alliance.
“Now all those who care about the Pinelands must fight the battle once again — the same battle we won nearly three years ago,’’ said Montgomery, referring to when the Pinelands Commission originally deadlocked in a seven-to-seven vote over approving the project.
“It was a big win,’’ added Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club. “We’ve got our work ahead of us.’’
Since the project originally went before the Pinelands Commission, the composition of its board has changed, with two commissioners who had opposed the proposal leaving.