Murphy Moves to Stock Pinelands Commission with Proven Conservationists

Governor’s four nominations will put commission back on firm environmental footing, after eight years of Christie’s pro-natural-gas policies

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In a move welcomed by conservationists, Gov. Phil Murphy is poised to extend his imprint on the Pinelands Commission with two new nominations and the reappointment of another long-serving commissioner.

The governor’s office is expected to announce the nominations of Jessica Rittler Sanchez, a regional planner in water-resources policy, and Jennifer Coffey, the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC), according to two environmental organizations.

Murphy also intends to nominate Edward Lloyd, a Pinelands commissioner since 2002 and the director of the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic, to another term on the commission. A fourth nomination, Theresa Lettman, was announced by the governor in January. All four are subject to approval of the Senate.

For Pinelands advocates, the nominations, if confirmed, could significantly shift the tenor and direction of the commission, which oversees development and protection of 1 million acres of preserve. It is the largest intact coastal ecosystem between New Hampshire and Virginia.

Pinelands-centric agenda

“It makes the commission more Pinelands-oriented,’’ said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “They are people who are definitely conservationists who replace ones who had a different agenda.”

The environmental community has been pressing the Murphy administration to use its discretion in nominating people to state commissions, like the Pinelands and New Jersey Highlands Council, to replace members who had been appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie’s eight years saw the commission approve two new natural-gas pipelines through the Pinelands, one of which provoked opposition from four governors, two Republicans and a pair of Democrats. One of those pipelines, a 30-mile project by New Jersey Natural Gas, is now under construction, even as the matter has yet to be decided in court. The other, a 22-mile pipeline by South Jersey Gas, appeared to die when the owners of the B.L. England gas plant in Cape May decided not to convert the former coal facility to gas.

Adding pro-Pinelands voices

“You now have two environmental voices taking the places of people who were not,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is a big deal for the environment and the Pinelands.’’

If all four nominees are confirmed, Tittel argued it would change the direction of the commission back to where it was originally intended: to protect the Pinelands, a national reserve with trillions of gallons of fresh water in aquifers underlying the area.

A newly constituted commission is more likely to focus on ways to adapt to climate change and protect the region’s water supplies — issues that were not priorities of the members in recent years, according to Montgomery.

Sanchez, a Pinelands resident who lives in Tabernacle, previously worked for the Delaware River Basin Commission, until retiring last year. She has been a member of the board of trustees of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance since 2007.

Prior to joining ANJEC, Coffey worked as policy director for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, now known as the Watershed Institute. She is a member of the New Jersey State Water Supply Advisory Council.