Over the jeers of hundreds of demonstrators, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission voted Friday to approve South Jersey Gas' application to build a controversial 22-mile natural gas pipeline, 10 miles of which will go through protected Pinelands forest.
The vote was 9-5 with one abstention, but the commissioners' votes were largely inaudible as pipeline opponents waved placards reading "Stop the Pipeline" and chanted, "Do the right thing."
A line of five state troopers stood between the crowd of about 800 and the commissioners, who sat on a dais at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill. The commission had relocated its monthly meeting from its offices in Pemberton to accommodate the anticipated crowd, some of whom came in buses.
Once the vote tally had circulated through the crowd, opponents began chanting, "Shame, shame, shame on you," and "See you in court," halting the board's business for about 10 minutes while Chairman Sean Earlen called for order.
Representatives of trade unions and other supporters applauded the vote and cheered briefly, but many on both sides soon left the hall.
Barbara Ann Del Duke, spokeswoman for South Jersey Gas, declined to say when the utility planned to start work on the pipeline. In a statement, the utility said it appreciated "the constructive dialogue that ensued throughout the application" and thanked the commission for "maintaining the integrity of the process."
Most who stepped to the microphones during a comment session after the vote voiced outrage, with one speaker calling the commissioners who voted for the route "cowards." A voice in the crowd yelled, "Sociopaths!"
Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, furiously denounced the commissioners who voted in favor, saying they had bowed to manipulation from political and economic interests. "We sued you once and we'll sue you again," Tittel shouted at the commissioners, calling the vote "the most shameful moment in the 40-year history of the Pinelands."
"You went with a lie," shouted Tittel, "you violated your trust."
Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, called the vote an "abomination," and asked the commission to postpone start of construction until the Appellate Division hears appeals that his group and other opponents plan to file. The commission did not immediately act on his request.
Georgina Shanley, an activist from Ocean City, stepped to the microphone to call them "fake commissioners."
Michael A. Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, hailed the vote, however, saying it would bring jobs and improve air quality in South Jersey.
"We hope it moves on now, " Egenton said in a phone interview.
In 2014, the commission rejected a virtually identical application from South Jersey Gas by a tie vote with one recusal.
Christie, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and other elected officials, along with labor unions and area chambers of commerce, had vigorously supported the project, however, and there was much pressure on the commission to change its vote.
Opponents of the route were equally emphatic, turning out repeatedly and in large numbers during the intervening years to remind commissioners that the Pinelands Commission's 1981 charter specifically bars "institutional" infrastructure in protected forest unless it is primarily intended to "serve the needs of the Forest Area."
Outside the hall, Montgomery said he had anticipated the commission would approve the pipeline "after [the commission's membership] was restructured starting in 2015."
Following the commission's narrow rejection of the pipeline in 2014, Gov. Christie replaced Robert Jackson, who had voted against the pipeline, with Ocean City Councilman Bob Barr, who was recommended by Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), a pipeline supporter.
Barr voted for the route, along with newcomer Jane Jannarone, whom Cumberland County appointed in 2014, and Giuseppe "Joe" Chila, Gloucester County's appointee, who joined last year.
Governors appoint seven of the members, and each of the seven counties within the Pinelands Area names one.
Robert Hays, who was appointed last month by the U.S. secretary of the interior, was the lone abstainer. Shortly before the vote, on a motion to postpone it, Hays had told his fellow commissioners he would like more time to become familiar with the project.
On a vote that seemed to predict the final outcome, the board voted 9-6, with Hays voting with the minority, against a postponement.
Last month, the preservation alliance had petitioned the Appellate Division to stay any vote on the project on the ground that the commission in December had adopted a change to its review process without proper public notice or comment.
Montgomery said Friday that that rule change would likely be the basis of at least one appeal. He said his group also believes Barr should have recused himself from voting because he had told the Ocean City Gazette on Wednesday that he had already made up his mind.
The preservation alliance also contends that Chila should have recused himself for reasons of conflict of interest because he belongs to a local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose members could be employed by a power plant conversion or pipeline project.
The pipeline would extend from Maurice River Township in Cumberland County to a converted electrical generation plant in Upper Township, Cape May County, that is currently coal-and oil-fired. The B.L. England plant, as it is called, has long been a major source of air pollution.
Before the vote, Commissioner Mark Lohbauer read a lengthy letter asking the commission to vote against the pipeline on the ground that it would pose a serious threat to the environment and the safety of residents, violate the commission's charter barring such infrastructure, and set a precedent that "lowers the bar" for all future infrastructure projects.
"The forest is not just trees," Lohbauer, who was replaced by Christie last year as the commission's chairman, told his colleagues. "The forest is a conglomeration of streams and soils and plants and animals and habitat that create a great natural filtration system that preserves the groundwater beneath the trees and beneath the roadways.
"It's all precious and protected," he said, and for that reason "the master plan frowns on such development."