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Our Annual State of the Pinelands Report

July 1, 2010


by Carleton Montgomery, Executive Director

The economy and public finance dominated public policy discussions and politics this year, and the environment usually got into the debate only because certain special interests are using the economic crisis to try tearing down environmental protections. This year’s State of the Pinelands Report provides grounds for satisfaction and disappointment, optimism and worry for the future. On the positive side of the ledger, the public’s vote for more open space funding stands out, especially in the midst of a severe financial and economic crisis and an election in which two of the three main party candidates for governor opposed the measure. On the negative side, we see a raft of legislation coming from both parties aimed at weakening environmental protection in the name of economic necessity – an argument that finally only serves those specific industries, like house builders, who benefit at the expense of other industries, like tourism, and the public at large.

The conviction of former Assemblyman and Mayor Dan Van Pelt cuts two ways: It is gratifying that a crook who sought to use his influence to get development approvals for his “client” got caught. But the case also points up again just how deeply money is embedded in our whole system of local land use planning. Only the most egregious cases are treated as criminal corruption, but we should have no illusions about the pervasive, damaging role of the money that cycles through the political institutions that have such a large say in the future of our landscape and the fate of its treasured resources.

Looking forward, the public will need to keep an eye on several issues discussed in this report – in some case, because government looks poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the behest of developers. Here are some of the key challenges we will face in the coming year arising from issues discussed in this report:

• Department of Environmental Protection staff are under pressure to reverse their denial of a permit to build a massive Wal-Mart store on critical habitat of threatened Northern Pine Snakes in Ocean County.

• The developer Walters Group is suing Barnegat Township, trying to force it to reverse its courageous decision to keep a portion of the Ocean Acres neighborhood in conservation. Sadly, the township has gotten no support from the Pinelands Commission or its staff, even though it was the Commission that originally sponsored and designed the conservation plan for this area.

• Deep budget cuts and the failure to fill vacancies are crippling the Pinelands Commission, and the consequences remain to be seen. Staff shortages will weaken or defeat needed actions to fix known deficiencies in the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) and to implement the CMP rigorously and consistently, especially when the construction industry begins to rev up again.

• Barnegat Bay and its watershed are in desperate need of bold action to reverse the accelerating impacts of over-development in Ocean County. The Governor has promised to make the Bay’s restoration a priority. But we have yet to see a plan of action from the new administration, and there will be great pressure to maintain business as usual.

• Democratic and Republican lawmakers are working together on a slew of anti-environmental bills being pushed by the construction industry. Some bad bills have already been adopted, but many more are in the pipeline. In a variety of ways, these bills seek to reduce or dismantle environmental protections for land, water, and public health. All are being justified as necessary to get us through the recession – but you can bet their sponsors won’t be moving to revoke them as the economy bounces back!

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