Given its responsibility to “preserve, protect and enhance the natural and cultural resources” of the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve in South Jersey, the Pinelands Commission will always be at the center of hot-button issues.
The nation’s first reserve and biggest largely undeveloped area on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard is also home to nearly 500,000 people. When economic, environmental and other interests involving this fifth of New Jersey land collide, it typically falls to the Pinelands Commission to come up with a balanced resolution.
Lately the commission has reached a couple of sensible decisions and compromises in such cases, and a third in one of its most contentious matters — the proposed natural gas pipeline to the Beesleys Point power plant — looks like it may be in hand soon.
A new application from the Department of Environmental Protection to cut 16 acres of a tree farm so a fire tower can continue to function was approved nearly unanimously in mid-April. The commission had denied a similar request last August after opposition from some local government officials, residents and environmentalists.
The DEP could have appealed the denial to an administrative judge but decided to reapply. The request from its Forest Fire Service was compelling — the tower watches an area hosting 50,000 residents in which nine forest fires have burned 30,000 acres since 1999. Nearby fires in 1936 and 1977 killed firefighters, who are honored by a memorial near the tower.
Some have rightly wondered whether sensors or cameras might eliminate the need for observers manning the tower. The answer is, not yet. This latest cutting of the trees, not native to these pinelands anyway, perhaps will keep the area safe long enough for such technologies to sufficiently develop and demonstrate their reliability and safety. When that happens, the fire service is sure to consider their use.
The Pinelands Commission also approved an agreement with the South Jersey Transportation Authority to quit maintaining protected habitat for two rare birds at its Atlantic City International Airport.
Since 2004, SJTA has maintained 290 acres of tall grass at the airport for use by very small numbers of endangered upland sandpipers and threatened grasshopper sparrows. That has been a mixed blessing for the birds, which increasingly have been hit by airplanes. It also impairs some of the airport’s potential to better serve the region.
Under the agreement, SJTA will replace the airport plot with at least 62 acres of appropriate bird habitat near enough for the birds to use it, and will pay the Pinelands Commission $3 million to use for land preservation and acquisition. This looks like a win for everyone.
The commission also expected to see the end of the battle over building a pipeline to the Upper Township power plant so it could convert from burning coal to far cleaner natural gas. The dispute so slowed New Jersey’s already snail’s-pace regulatory process that the changing state energy market altered the economics of the plant before that improvement could be made. Plant owner Rockland Capital Cape May Holdings announced at the end of February that it was abandoning plans to repower the electricity generating station and was closing the plant at the end of May.
The state and wind-energy-giant Orsted, which has bid to start developing a massive wind-turbine facility about 11 miles off Atlantic City, have been studying ways to bring that electricity — 1,100 megawatts to start — to the mainland and into the power grid. The Beesleys Point plant offers a short path to its existing high-capacity power lines. If Orsted’s bid is chosen by the state Board of Public Utilities (expected by July 1), don’t be surprised if the former coal plant becomes an onshore facility for the clean energy of the future.
Since the plant no longer needs the pipeline, it was widely expected that the application to the Pinelands Commission for its approval would be withdrawn. Not quite.
South Jersey Gas told the commission that would be premature, since the lawsuit by environmental groups against the pipeline is still pending. The utility also wanted the pipeline so it has a second way to get natural gas to the Cape May peninsula.
The commission put off rescinding its approval of the pipeline, but it seems inevitable since it won’t be built to a plant that no longer exists. South Jersey Gas may well revise its pipeline plan with a route that focuses on providing needed resilience for its service to Cape May County customers. It may even want the court case resolved to make clear its legal authority to create and maintain the infrastructure that society requires.
This good outcome all around may be partly due to luck or to far-sighted state leaders (career professionals, most likely) who could recognize the possibilities in the changing energy market and advocate for this result. As long as the electricity from offshore wind doesn’t cost too much, it’s a change nearly everyone can support.