In a bid to force action on long-pending nominations, three former New Jersey governors have joined with 20 prominent environmental organizations in pressing Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to advance proposed appointments to the Pinelands Commission and Highlands Council.
In a letter to Sweeney, former governors Thomas Kean, Christine Whitman and James Florio joined the conservation groups in asking the Senate to act on the nominations, which have been awaiting votes since the previous legislative session. In the case of Theresa Littman, her nomination to the Pinelands Commission has languished since January 2019.
“The Pinelands and Highlands are struggling without appointments,’’ the letter said. “Our open spaces that we all treasure rely in part upon the Pinelands Commission and Highlands Council to oversee regional development and protect the water quality and water supply upon which millions of residents and visitors to South Jersey rely.’’
The nominees, according to advocates, all have strong environmental backgrounds, and for the most part, replace members appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie, who sought to rein in actions the two planning agencies could take to limit development within the two regions.
Both the Pinelands and Highlands are viewed as two of New Jersey’s most precious resources by conservationists, providing drinking water to millions of residents, along with recreational opportunities and natural habitats fast disappearing elsewhere in the state.
A spokesman for Sweeney did not respond to a call for comment.
Murphy resubmitted the nominations — five to the Pinelands and three to the Highlands — in March just as the coronavirus outbreak shut down much of state government. The two vacancies on the Pinelands Commission have made it difficult for it to take meaningful action on issues coming before it, according to Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
An appeal to Sweeney
The most prominent loss was Candace McKee Ashmun, who passed away last month after serving for the entire 40-year history of the Pinelands Commission. Lettman was expected to replace her on the commission and Ashmun had appealed to Sweeney last year backing her nomination.
“It’s a big deal to have bipartisan governors on this,’’ added Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “The Pinelands nominations are stuck in the mud right now.’’
For the Highlands Council, environmentalists have been frustrated by the failure to reconstitute the makeup of the agency. “They are not taking any new bold actions to get things done,’’ said Elliott Ruga, policy director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.
The nominations to the council have been held up by 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.
Besides Lettman — a former trustee of the Natural Lands Trust — Robert Jackson, a former Pinelands commissioner, and Ed Lloyd, a current and another long-time commissioner, are awaiting action by the Senate Judiciary Committee. New nominees to the Pinelands Commission 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.