Following his sudden replacement as head of the Pinelands Commission last week, Mark Lohbauer won’t rule out the possibility that his vote against a controversial gas pipeline played a role in his downfall. Lohbauer, who will continue with the Commission under its new chairman Sean Earlen, told PolitickerNJ that the decision from the governor’s office caught him off guard.
Lohbauer received an abrupt phone call last Thursday from Governor Chris Christie’s office informing him that he would be replaced, just 24 hours after the pipeline project had been approved by the state Board of Public Utilities and the Commission’s own executive director, Nancy Wittenberg.
“When the governor’s office called me, they didn’t express a reason as to why this was happening other than to say that ‘You’ve had your time and the governor would like to put someone else in.’
“I’m glad that I had the opportunity to have served as chairman,” he continued. “When I was appointed there, I thought it was my duty to vote as I saw fit. I certainly made that clear when the governor’s office was contemplating appointing me. I expected to be there with the freedom to vote my conscience. That was assured to me.”
Lohbauer and Earlen were at odds during 2014’s Commission vote on the pipeline, with Lohbauer voting ‘no’ on a proposal to allow the 22-miles of construction underneath the protected Pinelands. That project won approval from the executive director on the basis that it would be private development, and therefore not subject to the commission’s oversight. The BPU agreed.
Though the New Jersey Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel decried Lohbauer’s replacement as “retribution” for his opposition to the pipeline project, the former chairman called that charge a mere possibility.
“I know that my vote two years ago was probably not appreciated by the governor’s office. It’s not the only thing where we’ve had differences. There are a number of issues that have come up since then that may also have been involved in this.”
Brian Murray, a spokesman for Governor Christie, said that the decision was not meant to target Lohbauer.
“This is not a seat replacement, but Sean Earlen was indeed designated as the next Pinelands Commission chairman (Thursday),” he said. “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.”
The Sierra Club and advocacy group Environment New Jersey are pursuing a lawsuit against the BPU and the Pinelands Commission claiming that because the pipeline would serve energy customers outside of the Pinelands, it cannot be considered private development. Sierra Club President Jeff Tittel said the case could take a year or more for the decision to be appealed.
“We believe that this pipeline not only will do a tremendous amount of environmental damage to the Pinelands, but we also believe how they did it, they manipulated the facts and violated the law,” Tittel said.
Environment New Jersey Director Doug O’Malley said in a statement that Lobhauer’s replacement follows a pattern of the Christie administration targeting anti-pipeline commissioners.
“Three out of the seven Pinelands Commissioners who opposed the pipeline have seen nominations to replace them in the last two years. Pinelands Commissioner Leslie Ficcaglia had served for 18 years before she was replaced in 2014 as Cumberland County’s representative. Pinelands Commissioner Robert Jackson had served for more than a decade before being replaced by Commissioner Bob Barr, a political ally of Sen. Van Drew, a pipeline supporter, last March. The Senate Judiciary Committee also heard testimony in the fall of 2014 from Dennis Roohr, a Gov. Christie nominee, to replace Commissioner Darcy Green, who also opposed the pipeline. While that nomination failed, with today’s announcement, four of the seven Pinelands Commissioners who opposed the South Jersey Pipeline have been targeted or removed from the Commission.”
The BPU and Earlen declined to comment.