Murphy Nominates Eight to Pinelands Commission, NJ Highlands Council

The question now: Will Senate move ahead with staffing up state’s two most prominent planning commissions?
Credit: bobglennan/Flickr
A pond in the Pinelands region of South Jersey

Gov. Phil Murphy quietly submitted eight nominations this week to the Pinelands Commission and New Jersey Highlands Council, all of whom had been recommended to fill positions on the two regional planning agencies last year, but never moved forward to the Senate.

The submittals, made on Monday without any public announcement, have long been pressed by environmental organizations who are looking to the governor to recast the focus of the state’s two most prominent planning agencies.

By nominating five people to serve on the Pinelands Commission and three to the Highlands Council, the administration could achieve that goal — if their candidates are confirmed by the Senate, a still unanswered question.

The nominees all have strong environmental backgrounds, and mostly replace members appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie, who nominated people who shared his frustration with the broad reach of the laws that created both planning agencies.

Jewels of Jersey

To conservationists, however, the Pinelands and Highlands are two of New Jersey’s environmental jewels — providing drinking water to millions of residents, along with recreational opportunities and natural habitats fast disappearing elsewhere in the state.

“It’s really important,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters of New Jersey. “These are really stellar candidates. We really need the Senate and Sen. Nicholas Scutari (the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee) to act on these nominations as quickly as possible.’’

In the past, a variety of issues held up some of the nominations, including a couple of senators using senatorial courtesy to block some of the appointments. Senatorial courtesy allows legislators to hold up nominations from within their own counties.

Both agencies have been faulted by critics for unfairly taking land from property owners and failing to compensate them for losses because of restrictions on development.

Those who back the nominations note they are crucial to the Pinelands Commission, in particular, because it’s had trouble in recent months even reaching a quorum for meetings, according to Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Will nominations move forward?

Montgomery is optimistic the nominations will move forward. “The governor’s office believes they have some of these issues resolved,’’ he said. “We couldn’t go a whole year without action on these nominations again.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “There are real consequences of leaving some of these boards stacked with Chris Christie appointees,’’ he said. “We have to move on these nominations.’’

The nominees for the Pinelands include Theresa Lettman, first nominated a year ago in January, a former trustee of the Natural Lands Trust; Robert Jackson, a former commissioner; and Ed Lloyd, a current and long-time commissioner of the agency. The new nominees include Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions; and Jessica Ritter Sanchez, a regional planner in water resources and management.

On the Highlands Council, the nominees include Daniel Van Abs, a Rutgers assistant professor and former staff member of the council; Bill Kibler, director of policy for the Raritan Headwaters Association; and Wynnie-Fred Victor Haines, co-chair of the Newark Environmental Commission.