Gov. Christie on Friday replaced an opponent of a controversial natural gas pipeline with a supporter atop the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, naming Lumberton Township Mayor Sean Earlen as its new chairman.
Earlen was one of seven commissioners who voted in 2014 to allow South Jersey Gas to build the pipeline through protected Pinelands forest, a project the Christie administration has vigorously endorsed.
Mark Lohbauer, whom Earlen replaces, was among the seven who voted against it, and with the vote tied, the project was defeated. The commission staff and executive director later approved it, bypassing the commissioners.
A Christie spokesman said the switch was routine and not in reprisal, noting that Lohbauer continues on the board.
Friday's announcement came one day after the Sierra Club of New Jersey and Environment New Jersey filed suit with the Appellate Division, asking the court to overturn the approval that the commission's executive director gave to the pipeline in August without a public hearing or board vote.
Earlen's appointment, effective immediately, was announced at a meeting of the commission's policy subcommittee chaired by Lohbauer, who continues on the board.
In December, Lohbauer, a Republican former lawyer and Pennsauken resident, said he believed the commission should consider revising the bylaws that allowed commission staff and the executive director to decide independently of the board if a major project proposal accords with the Pinelands' Comprehensive Management Plan.
Earlen said Friday that a review of the bylaws "is something I plan to look at," and said it had been a topic of discussion at the subcommittee's morning meeting.
He said he learned of his appointment only on Thursday and was "excited and anxious to get started."
A Republican, Earlen was named in 2011 as Burlington County's representative on the Pinelands Commission board, the same year Christie appointed Lohbauer. Earlen is a vice president at Constructural Dynamics in Fairless Hills, and serves on the board of the New Jersey Building Authority.
Lohbauer did not respond to a request for comment.
Several environmental groups accused Christie of punishing Lohbauer for resisting the pipeline.
"The other shoe finally dropped. Two years after Chairman Lohbauer bravely opposed South Jersey Gas' pipeline, he was fired for not toeing Gov. Christie's party line," Environment New Jersey said in a news release. "It's the public's loss not to have him chairing the gavel."
Brian Murray, a Christie spokesman, denied that Lohbauer's replacement was in retribution.
"The sitting chairman had been in place for about five years, and it was time to give another commissioner an opportunity. It was nothing more than that," he said.
Murray noted that Lohbauer continues to serve as a Pinelands commissioner, even though his three-year term expired in 2014.
"The appointment of chairman is the governor's prerogative," Commissioner Ed Lloyd, an environmental lawyer who had opposed the pipeline project, said after the announcement. "I'm not going to question his prerogative. So it is what it is.
"I have to work with Sean, and we've got some difficult issues in front of us," Lloyd said. "Mark did a wonderful job, and he's still serving with us."
At the meeting, according to Lloyd and others present, commissioners thanked Lohbauer for his service as chairman and welcomed Earlen to his new position.
The Pinelands Commission consists of 15 members, seven of whom are appointed by the governor, seven by each of the counties in the Pinelands, and one by the U.S. secretary of the interior.
Members of the Commission serve staggered three-year terms and do not receive compensation. Nine commissioners are serving expiring terms. Earlen's expires in July 2017.