30 and Counting: the Pinelands Protection Act

This month we recall Governor Brendan Byrne’s 1979 signing of the Pinelands Protection Act, put forth to end construction in unspoiled portions of Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, and Ocean counties.

Aerial View of BaTsto River as It winds through the Wharton State forest.
Photo by Steve Greer.

This month we recall Governor Brendan Byrne’s 1979 signing of the Pinelands Protection Act, put forth to end construction in unspoiled portions of Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, and Ocean counties.

The 30-second brief: Concerned by encroachment on the state’s vast Pine Barrens wilderness, such as burgeoning development following the advent of casino gambling in Atlantic City, Governor Brendan Byrne signs Executive Order 71 on February 8, 1979. It forms a fifteen-person Pinelands Planning Commission to oversee development while mandating a construction moratorium in a 576-square-mile core of Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, and Ocean counties. The action comes two years after Executive Order 56 creates a Pinelands Review Committee and five months after Congress passes the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, making the Pine Barrens the country’s first National Reserve.

The Pine Barrens, middle-school version:
Site of Revolutionary War iron smelters, bosom of the cranberry and blueberry industries, and home to reclusive Pineys and the notorious Jersey Devil.

The Pine Barrens, HBO version:
Where Christopher and Paulie botched whacking a Russian and almost froze to death in the third season of The Sopranos.

New Jersey total area:
4.8 million acres

Pinelands Reserve area: 1.1 million acres

New Jersey highest density, 1970s:
40,000 people per square mile

Pinelands highest density, 1970s:
15 people per square mile

Let my people come: Developers itch to transform the Northeast’s last seaboard wilderness, especially with the U.S. Census showing the state’s largest 1970s population spurts in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Among their proposed “improvements”: a supersonic jetport four times larger than Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK combined.

Call to arms: Eye-opening stories by John McPhee in the New Yorker, republished in his slim 1968 book The Pine Barrens, introduce readers to the region’s sand roads, hamlets, placid residents, and rare flora. Yet time will disprove the book’s last paragraph: “[I]t would appear that the Pine Barrens are not very likely to be the subject of dramatic decrees or acts of legislation.” As Randall Rothenberg writes in the New York Times Magazine in 1985, McPhee’s “celebration of this last bastion of rustic splendor amid the growing eastern megalopolis helped lead to the federal and state governments’ decision to protect the Pinelands from destructive overdevelopment.”

Lofty ambitions:
Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel J. O’Hern concedes the state’s roughly $30 million in bonds for Green Acres land purchases is a pittance for safeguarding 20 percent of the state. The act, instead, will contain sprawl through non-monetary means: legislation and land-use regulation.
Enormous yet fragile: The Pinelands’ sandy surface leaves the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer that lies beneath it vulnerable to contamination. “There is a very weak buffering capacity,” Princeton researcher David Crerar says following a decade-long study published in 1982. “It is just like going through marbles.”

Bottom line: Byrne’s actions are challenged in court but survive. The state bought about 700,000 acres surrounding the reserve’s four existing forests, and much of the Pinelands remains pristine.

Denouement, part I: Governor Christine Todd Whitman signs the Garden State Preservation Trust Act in June 1999, which allocates nearly $1 billion over ten years to purchase 1 million mostly rural acres. Recent estimates, though, show less than 500,000 acres will be protected by 2009.

Denouement, part II: Governor James E. McGreevey tries in February 2004 to team watershed protection—specifically, safeguarding the 1,000-square-mile northwest Highlands—and legislation to spur revitalization of underutilized urban areas. But much of that proposal is tabled due to objections by developers, home-rule advocates, land prospectors, and homeowners fearing a drop in land values. A reformulated Highlands regional master plan is expected by this June.


FEBRUARY IN NJ, 1976–2006

Feb 1, 1977: The state Senate votes 31–0 to allocate $125,000 for the creation of the Motion Picture and Television Development Commission, envisioned to win a share of the nation’s billion-dollar movie industry.

Feb 15, 1977: An Essex County grand jury indicts nine Newark police officers, five of whom once worked on the narcotics squad, for shielding and abetting a heroin ring in the city for nearly three years.

Feb 8, 1978: U.S. Postal Service deliveries resume across much of the state after a two-day unheard-of hiatus, following a snowstorm that left much of the state’s roads impassible.

Feb 21, 1978: Environmentalists lose a battle when the U.S. Supreme Court lets stand an August 1976 ruling allowing the sale of $1.1 billion in offshore oil drilling leases in the Baltimore Canyon Trough, which runs the length of the Jersey Shore.

Feb 20, 1979: Federal highway officials approve a plan for a cut-and-cover tunnel between Berkeley Heights and Springfield that will spare the Watchung Reservation while providing the last five-mile stretch of Route 78.

Feb 21, 1979: Swapping jokes and singing songs to ease their nerves, about 900 PATH commuters spend two hours in a tunnel beneath the Hudson River after a Manhattan power substation floods, stranding their train.

Feb 3, 1980: FBI authorities announce that they will present a grand jury with evidence of political corruption, a sting that ultimately will corral eight members of Congress, including longtimer Frank Thompson Jr. of Trenton. The scandal draws its name, Abscam, from the bureau’s fictitious oil-rich Arab sheik, dubbed Abdul, from whom the officials accepted bribes.

Feb 21, 1980: In the largest recovery since the state’s antitrust law took effect a decade earlier, nine dairies—producers of all but 2 percent of the state’s processed milk—receive fines totaling $2.5 million for rigging bids on milk contracts.

Feb 7, 1981: Governor Brendan Byrne expands mandatory water rationing to 202 municipalities in North and Central Jersey, affecting more than 3 million residents. Reports show reservoirs holding less than a 40-day supply.

Feb 18, 1981: The State Supreme Court sets out lengthy guidelines authorizing judges to order the sterilization of mentally disabled individuals if it serves the “best interests” of the individual.

Feb 11, 1982: Responding to federal tests showing high air concentrations of an estrogen-type hormone, Rutgers University closes Smith Hall, the largest classroom building on its Newark campus. A state study in October 1981 had found a significant rate of cancer cases among the building’s workers.

Feb 26, 1982: A committee representing NJ Transit and its 70,000 rail customers recommends that the state assume control of all commuter rail lines operated by Conrail, which, under the Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981, is no longer obligated to run passenger trains.

Feb 8, 1983: The first state cancer registry logs 27,557 cases diagnosed in 1979, reporting the leading types as gastrointestinal (24 percent), respiratory (16 percent), and breast (13 percent).

Feb 2, 1984: A state Supreme Court ruling forbids private property owner associations from banning the public from beaches, in this case by distributing badges strictly to Bay Head association members. The court rules that such badges must be made available to nonresidents on a daily and seasonal basis.

Feb 8, 1985: To protest apartheid, Rutgers’s boards of governors and trustees vote that the university should sell off its stock in 7 of 17 companies doing business in South Africa. The votes follow hours of debate interrupted many times by the cheers, applause, and chants of about 100 students.

Feb 19, 1985: A statewide fire safety code takes effect, following a May 1984 fire that killed eight teens at Great Adventure in Jackson Township.

Feb 21, 1985: An explosion decimates a three-block-long warehouse on Bay Street in Elizabeth, sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air, causing a blaze that burns for days, and resulting in more than $100 million in damage.

Feb 25, 1985: The National Science Foundation chooses the Princeton-based Consortium for Scientific Computing, which includes Princeton and Rutgers universities, as the site for housing a complex super-computer more than 100 times more powerful than current machines.

Feb 18, 1986: In what will long remain the nation’s second highest-priced sale of a television station, RKO General sells the state’s only licensed VHF station, WOR-TV/Channel 9, to MCA for $387 million.

Feb 20, 1986: In what will become known as the Mount Laurel 3 ruling, the state Supreme Court unanimously upholds legislation transferring oversight of low- and moderate-income housing from the judiciary to the state Council on Affordable Housing.

Feb 3, 1988: The state Supreme Court tosses out a surrogacy contract as “baby bartering,” awarding custody of 23-month-old Baby M to her biological father while protecting the visitation rights of her natural mother.

Feb 24, 1988: Oleg Cassini, the 74-year-old fashion designer who has become the oldest man to obtain a provisional harness-racing driver’s license, “races” B. J. Button to break stride three times en route to a last-place finish in the second race at Freehold. Cassini is scratched from two subsequent races when Slugger dumps him from the sulky prior to the fourth race and a track physician rules Cassini’s blood pressure too high for him to compete.

Feb 7, 1989: A federal judge in Newark sentences Yu Kikumura, a Japanese Red Army terrorist arrested on the Turnpike while driving a car filled with antipersonnel bombs, to 30 years in prison.

Feb 13, 1989: Officials at University Hospital in Newark announce that 300 babies born there, or 1 in 22, have tested positive for AIDS, a rate almost ten times higher than that of the entire state.

Feb 20, 1990: The state sues fifteen insurance companies that handled policies under the Joint Underwriting Association, in an attempt to recoup at least $332 million in excessive claims payments and servicing fees from the past five years. At one point the JUA had provided coverage to 2.1 million drivers unable to obtain insurance elsewhere.

Feb 22, 1990: A week after Clinton Pagano is removed as state police superintendent, officers receive stringent guidelines in an effort to stem complaints relating to abuse and harassment of minority drivers on the Turnpike.

Feb 5, 1991: U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff announces a 30-count indictment of William Spagnoli, a former senior officer at City Federal Savings Bank, charging that he received $2.5 million in bribes in a plan to gain $338 million in bogus development loans from the failed savings and loan.

Feb 13, 1992: West Milford’s Donna Weinbrecht, a ski bum working as a beach-badge seller on Long Beach Island during the summer, captures the Olympic gold in women’s freestyle mogul skiing at Tignes, France. She represents the state’s first individual gold since figure skater Dick Button’s of Englewood (1948 and ’52).

Feb 3, 1993: Citing the proliferation of public schools in disrepair, Governor Jim Florio joins state leaders in unveiling New Jersey WORKS for Schools, a $300 million program to repair or replace school buildings.

Feb 10, 1993: NJ Transit officials okay construction of a 15.3-mile, $657 million light-rail line along the Hudson River, a combination of urban stops and park-and-ride facilities stretching from the Turnpike’s Vince Lombardi rest area to Route 440.

Feb 18, 1993: Police arrest 21 Division of Motor Vehicle employees and owners of Newark-area driving schools for crimes including issuing bogus licenses to illegal aliens and providing test answers or taking tests for license applicants.

Feb 21, 1994: Essex County Executive Thomas D’Alessio is found guilty on twelve charges related to a conspiracy with campaign manager Joseph Thor to extort a $59,000 bribe from a garbage trucking company.

Feb 7, 1995: About 150 Rutgers students file onto the floor of the campus athletic center at halftime of a basketball game against the University of Massachusetts. They stage a quiet sit-in to protest remarks made by university president Francis Lawrence concerning race, genetics, and standardized test results.

Feb 28, 1995: Although he upholds the constitutionality of the new Megan’s Law in its first challenge, federal judge Nicholas Politan finds fault with the way prosecutors inform the public when a sex offender takes up residence in a neighborhood.

Feb 9, 1996: A New York–bound NJ Transit train misses a signal and smashes into another train near the Secaucus–Jersey City border, killing both engineers and a passenger and injuring more than 160 others.

Feb 18, 1997: In a stunning development, only minutes after a jury has been selected for his trial, Avi Kostner of Teaneck pleads guilty to murdering his twelve-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son in what he’d told police was a botched murder-suicide.

Feb 9, 1999: With complaints of racial profiling running high, state police records show minorities accounting for more than 75 percent of Turnpike arrests in the first two months of 1997. African-Americans account for 57 percent of Turnpike arrests, vs. a statewide rate of 41 percent for all crimes.

Feb 17, 1999: Frank Lautenberg announces he will not seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate, a decision similar to that Bill Bradley had made four years earlier after completing his third term.

Feb 24, 1999: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill helps the South Orange resident earn five Grammy Awards, including album of the year, a record-breaking number of honors for a female performer.

Feb 2, 2001: State officials agree to pay $12.95 million in damages to four young Black and Hispanic men whom state police shot at after pulling over their van on the Turnpike in 1998. The state also agrees to drop charges against 128 individuals who claim they too were racially profiled.

Feb 11, 2002: Nearly 40 years after shooting two policemen answering a noise complaint at the Angel Lounge on Route 46 in Lodi, Thomas Trantino becomes a free man under lifetime parole.

Feb 14, 2002: Costas Christofi, a 55-year-old limousine driver, is fatally wounded by a single shotgun blast in the bedroom of a Hunterdon County home owned by retired New Jersey Nets player Jayson Williams.

Feb 14, 2003: The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra finalizes an $18 million deal with philanthropists Herbert and Evelyn Axelrod to buy 30 string instruments, rare Italian pieces believed to be worth $50 million.

Feb 2, 2005: In a failed takeoff, a private jet overshoots a Teterboro Airport runway, smashes past morning rush-hour traffic on Route 46, and rams into a warehouse, injuring twenty.

Feb 22, 2005: An FBI sting using a contractor seeking government projects results in the arrest of eleven public officials across Monmouth County, including three mayors and four councilmen, on charges of extortion.

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