TRENTON - The New Jersey Senate narrowly voted Monday to confirm Gov. Christie's nominee to the Pinelands Commission, a move widely seen as a victory for the governor in his effort to allow construction of a pipeline through parts of the historic preserve.
Environmentalists and a mix of Democrats and Republican lawmakers opposed the nomination, arguing that the Pinelands should be protected and questioning the process by which Robert Barr was confirmed.
"Violating the Pinelands is a terrible choice," Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex) said on the Senate floor before the vote.
Barr was confirmed on a 21-17 vote, gaining the minimum number of votes required to pass, eliciting boos from dozens of protesters in the gallery who wore shirts that read, "Pinelands Not Pipelands."
South Jersey Gas sought a waiver in January 2014 to build a pipeline through 10 miles of the million-acre preserve. The Pinelands Commission deadlocked, 7-7, on its application, in effect rejecting it.
After that, Christie, a Republican considering running for president in 2016, declined to renominate Robert Jackson, one of those who voted against the pipeline. Instead, he nominated Barr, secretary of the Cape May County Democratic Committee.
During his confirmation hearing in October, Barr said he had not followed the debate over the pipeline. He said he had not discussed the pipeline - or any policy issues related to the Pinelands - with the governor's office.
"If we vote to support the governor's decision to remove Mr. Jackson, we will send a message to the rest of the Pinelands Commission and other boards and other commission members: Do what the governor says or you will be removed from your position," State Sen. Nia Gill (D., Essex) said.
That sentiment was reflected by four former governors - Republicans Thomas H. Kean Sr. and Christie Whitman, and Democrats Brendan T. Byrne and James J. Florio - who warned in an open letter to the Senate this month that Barr's appointment would "undermine the independence of the Pinelands Commission."
The 22-mile pipeline would transport gas from Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale to the B.L. England power plant in Upper Township's Beesleys Point, Cape May County. Ten miles of the pipeline would run through parts of Atlantic County where such utilities are otherwise banned.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the plant, currently powered by coal and oil, to convert to natural gas. The plant is owned by Texas-based Rockland Capital.
South Jersey's Gas' proposed pipeline would transport the fuel.
"The reality is, this isn't about a pipeline. This is about fracking," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), referring to the controversial process by which natural gas is extracted in places like the Marcellus Shale.
Sweeney, who voted in favor of Barr's confirmation, said after the vote that the pipeline would create jobs.
He added, "Since when was natural gas a dirty thing?"
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said Barr's appointment dismantled "40 years of Pinelands protections."
"This is a sellout of the Pinelands, the environment, and the legislative process," Tittel said. "This is a shameful abuse of process and display by the Senate and the Senate president."
Sweeney responded: "Jeff Tittel doesn't let the facts get in the way of many things."
"I've lived in South Jersey my entire life," he added. "I'm not doing anything to hurt the environment where I live."
The commission is an independent agency whose mission is to "preserve, protect, and enhance" the Pinelands and to "encourage compatible economic and other human activities consistent with that purpose."
Its 15-member board is composed of seven gubernatorial appointments, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, representatives of each of the seven Pinelands counties, and one member appointed by the U.S. secretary of the interior.
In April, the Cumberland County Board of Freeholders voted to replace its member, who, like Jackson, had voted against the pipeline.
The Senate Judiciary Committee twice put off a vote on Barr's nomination.
He was approved last month by the panel when one member, Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union), an ardent opponent of the pipeline, was on vacation and was replaced on the committee by Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who supports the pipeline.
On Monday, Sweeney posted the nomination for a vote but then held it when it was clear he did not have enough support.
Later during the voting session, Sweeney held the vote and Barr was confirmed.
Van Drew said in a statement that the vote was "not about one issue" and said Barr had the "highest standards of integrity and unquestionable character."
Barr, of Ocean City, could not be reached.
Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth) voted against the nomination Monday, saying Barr's appointment had advanced through the Judiciary Committee "under interesting circumstances."
"Ultimately, that commission is tasked with a very, very important task of protecting some of our most treasured lands in the State of New Jersey," she said.
South Jersey Gas officials have not said whether they would apply for another waiver. The company could not be reached late Monday afternoon, and Sweeney said he was unaware of its plans.