By Steve Sears
Chester resident and former Chester Township Mayor, Ben Spinelli, alludes to what makes the state of New Jersey that he loves so great.
“I try to tell people that, wherever you stand, if you drew a 20-mile circle around where you’re standing, you’re going to find every religion, every race, every ethnic group. Every type of person in the world is probably going to be in that 20-mile radius.”
Spinelli was recently hired as the new Executive Director of the New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council (also known as the Highlands Council). The New Jersey Highlands is an 860,000-acre region covering over 1,250 square miles and 88 municipalities in Bergen, Hunterdon, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties. Spinelli was from 2004 to 2006 a member of the Council.
Spinelli, who spends a lot of time amid Garden State nature with his wife, explains why. “It’s just great to be out in to be out in nature, and it’s very healing. Sometimes you do go out and you say, ‘My goodness, thank God somebody was smart enough to set this land aside for public recreation,’ because it’s such a wonderful resource and you really appreciate it. Sometimes you just want to be quiet for a little while and listen to the birds, the wind in the trees, or the water in a brook. Sometimes I just want to go out and I want to hike 10 miles because I want to be really, really tired when I get home. There are a lot of reasons, just like the Highlands Act itself. There are a lot of reasons why it’s important to protect the resources, and there are a lot of reasons why those resources are important.”
Spinelli, who has significant experience and expertise in environmental policy, land use practices, and preservation, speaks about how the former will aid him in his current role. “One of the reasons I submitted my application, other than my passion for protection, was I said, ‘This job was made for me.’ When I looked at what the qualifications were, that’s really where my career has taken me over time. My interests, my expertise, my training, all those things have led me here. And having a deep understanding, because we do a lot of different things. I can be conversant with our scientists and with our planners and with everyone who works here – really a top-notch staff. But I have a good understanding of everything that they do and what the reasoning behind it is. I think that’s important in leading the organizations, to have that credibility with the people who work for me. You have to have that credibility with the public, and then you have that credibility with the state agencies. Credibility is an important factor.”
The biggest challenge for Spinelli and his team is balancing resource protection and the needs of almost 800,000 people living in the Highlands region. “We’ve got to figure out how to balance where we allow development to take place, and where we prevent development from taking place,” he says. “That’s the puzzle, so we’ve got to make good, sound decisions. When you say yes to development, it’s got to be in the right place, it’s got to be the right intensity, it’s got to be built in the right manner, and it’s got to be respectful of the resources. The same goes the other way. When you decide to say, ‘No, development won’t take place here’ again, it has to be the right place. You’re investing resources for the most part in protecting that land. Is this a wise investment of our dollars? Those things go hand in hand in the decision-making process.”
Spinelli also lauds the Garden State’s Farmland Preservation Program and cites its importance. “We have the most successful farmland preservation program in the country, and in the Highlands, it’s important for any number of reasons,” Spinelli says. “It’s an important economic driver, number one. Other than residential development, it’s the single largest land use in the Highlands. One of our challenges is to work with farmers to make sure that they’re not the last farmer of the land. And that’s the beauty of the Farmland Preservation Program: it ensures that the land is going to be available going forward.”
Spinelli response is definitive when asked his and the rest of the New Jersey Highland Council’s basic mission. “To be the fierce defenders of the resources of the Highlands, no matter what.”
For more information about the New Jersey Highlands Council, visit www.nj.gov/njhighlands.