Two nominees to the Highlands Planning Council drew the opposition of environmentalists who suspected they were actually opposed to the Highlands Act and would work to “gut’’ the Act.
After testimony, though, the Senate Judiciary Committee released the nominations.
David Pringle of N.J. Environmental Federation told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Highlands Act has been a success but that these nominees will lead to a pro-development, anti-environment atmosphere at the Council.
The nominees, James Mengucci of Phillipsburg and Robert Walton of Hampton, were opposed by Pringle and other environmentalists.
Sen. Bob Smith, (D-17), Piscataway asked Pringle if there was a “smoking gun” that would indicate Mengucci opposed the Act, and Pringle said he did not have such evidence, but reiterated his belief that the appointment would be a step backward for the Highlands Council.
However, in the case of Walton, other senators referenced prior newspaper statements that they felt indicated Walton was opposed to Highlands.
Other environmental groups’ representatives delivered similar testimony that they were not sure the nominees would be pro-environment but would instead work to dismantle the Highlands Act.
Smith said “agreements be damned’’ about appointing nominees, and in this case he said they have someone in Walton who he believes is “diametrically’’ opposed to the Act. Smith argued he should have been brought into a later committee hearing to be interviewed.
The 2004 Highlands law was designed to protect hundreds of thousands of acres from overdevelopment and preserve clean drinking water for more than 5.4 million residents, but some Democrats are concerned the Christie administration wants to undermine that goal. In January, the appointments of two of Gov. Chris Christie’s nominees to the Highlands Council were held up over such concerns. The environmentalists argued that Christie is trying to accomplish via appointments what he cannot achieve via legislation.
In both cases, the nominees had not been invited by the committee to be present to answer questions.
The Highlands covers 1,250 square miles in parts of seven counties: Hunterdon, Somerset, Sussex, Warren, Morris, Passaic, and Bergen, and includes 88 municipalities. Approximately 859,359 acres make up the Preservation and the Planning Area where activities are regulated by the state.
The committee earlier OK’d the Highlands appointment of Timothy Dougherty of Morristown. It held the nomination of James Rilee of Succasunna.