Newest ‘State of the Pinelands’ report a mixed bag, watchdog says
For 15 years, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance has issued its annual review of the previous year's public policy decisions impacting the Pinelands National Reserve and the 56 municipalities that it touches.
A simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" is a sufficient summation of how the watchdog group feels about the decisions of the Pinelands Commission, a state government agency, a whole branch of government, or an individual county or town during that year.
"Our work is really to break down the barriers that have excluded marginalized communities from enjoying and using and taking advantage of the wonderful resources that exist in the Pinelands," Rhyan Grech, Alliance policy analyst, said.
But the criteria are strict: to uphold the Comprehensive Management Plan, protect plant and wildlife habitats, safeguard aquifers and surface waters, ensure water supply integrity, enhance cultural and historic resources, and advance education.
Alongside those six general concepts, executive director Carleton Montgomery laid out six specific reforms in the 2022 "State of the Pinelands Report."
As assistant executive director Jaclyn Rhoads said during the report's virtual release on Friday, the Alliance always aims for a surplus in thumbs up, but suggestions for improvement are inevitable.
One such technicality was a thumbs up given to Gov. Phil Murphy for allocating an additional $3.3 million for PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, funding in the 2022 budget to help municipalities offset open space real estate tax losses.
However, Grech said a later draft of Murphy's budget knocked that funding back down to about its 2021 level of $6.5 million, instead of the near $10 million that had been proposed.
"$3.5 million to get that funding level back up for these towns is a relatively small ask, and it makes a huge difference to some of these towns, not all of which are in the Pinelands," she said. "This is a program that impacts towns around the state."
Speaking of towns, Egg Harbor City, Evesham, and Waterford all got shout-outs for positive developments in the past year.
On the other hand, the state Department of Environmental Protection didn't fare as well, due in large part to a settlement reached with New Jersey Natural Gas regarding spills caused by the construction of the Southern Reliability Link pipeline.
Grech said the agency is sitting on its hands, and also got a thumbs down for its plan to manage the fate of the Northern pine snake.
"The DEP has spoken publicly about starting up a public engagement process to actually put a program in place, to address some of these issues, and we have not seen action from the DEP yet," she said.
While the Alliance applauded the appointments of five new Pinelands Commissioners, the confirmation of a new executive director still hangs in the balance.
That carries a lot of weight, Grech said, as to what's next for the region.
"We are now looking to the Pinelands Commission to hire a strong executive director to move the agency in a bold direction, to tackle climate change, environmental justice issues, and the increasing development activity," she said.