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Column: Highlands 'Hero' Shown the Door

Don't expect the new director to do any better at getting compensation for land owners.

You’re my hero. Now you’re fired.

Does that make any sense? That’s what Highlands Council member Michael Francis of Hopatcong effectively said to the council’s director, Eileen Swan, last Thursday night.

Bizarre as that was, at least some of those members who voted to fire Swan were honest in saying they had no problem with Swan’s work and that the move was, indeed, a political takeover by Gov. Chris Christie of the body that is supposed to be independent.

This is the New Jersey definition of independent.

Many parts of the meeting were surreal. Kurt Alstede, who for years sat at the end of the council table as its chief—often only—naysayer, sat off-center as vice chairman and watched as Bergen County Surrogate Michael Dressler took up his mantle.

Dressler argued passionately with chairman Jim Rilee, mayor of Roxbury and a longstanding opponent of the Highlands Act, that the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to Swan’s dismissal may have violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Here’s hoping Dressler carries out his threat to seek legal opinions about an alleged violation from the state attorney general or the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Dressler questioned the independence of the state AG, who is, after all, a member of the governor’s cabinet and an openly political appointee.

And even if the firing, which Dressler called “one of the most gutless moves I have seen in 37 years in politics,” did not violate the letter of the OPMA, it “violated the spirit of the law,” said Tracy Carluccio, the only original Highlands council member left besides Alstede and its most passionate environmentalist.

Three former council members—Mimi Letts, Janice Kovach and Ben Spinelli—were among those who returned for last Thursday’s meeting to plead Swan’s case. A litany of others spoke on her behalf, as well. But it was fruitless, given the deal had been done the week before.

At least Alstede acknowledged, while still somewhat indirectly, that Christie had orchestrated what one environmentalist called the “Thursday Night Massacre.”

“It’s naïve to believe there has not been political influence in this process,” said Alstede, who for the first time proclaimed that the original council had been told by the then-governor who to hire as its first director. “We are here because this process is political.”

His comments also intimated that Swan is too “pro-environment.” He said he looks forward to “righting some of these wrongs” done by the 2004 Highlands Act.

Good luck with that.

To land owners David Shope, Hank Klumpp and Jerry Kern, who have attended many meetings—Shope has probably testified at every meeting the council has ever held—and who spoke in favor of Swan’s ouster as a way of somehow getting them back the right to develop their land or at least some monetary compensation: Don’t hold your breath.

What happened Thursday night will not solve the question of land owner equity. Not unless Christie is suddenly able to find the billions of dollars land owners contend the lost in equity as a result of the law. Given many believe the budget proposal already relies on overly optimistic revenue projections, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Highland Council, under Swan’s leadership, asked the state for money for land owners and urged the Legislature to enact a water tax to pay for that. Alstede knows this; he was its biggest proponent.

The Highlands Council does not have money to pay land owners. It never has and, unless no-new-taxes Christie is visited by three ghosts and turns into Christmas-Day-Scrooge, never will.

In fact, the only money the council has been able to get for landowners was $10 million of the $50 million it originally sought to fund its transfer of development rights program. Guess who was instrumental in getting that money from the governor (Gov. Jon S. Corzine, not Christie)?

Swan.

Despite his public statements in opposition to the act and the way it has treated property owners, Christie has given all of no additional dollars to funding TDRs.

Swan also is the person who negotiated a deal with the N.J. Council on Affordable Housing to get drastically lower affordable housing quotas to municipalities that conform to the regional master plan. That’s what encouraged many communities, including those not required to do so, to follow the plan. In hindsight, it appears that got Swan in trouble. She did her job too well.

But with an appeals court ruling that recently reinstated the much maligned COAH, those municipalities are likely grateful they bought into the regional plan.

Finally, the council cannot overrule the Highlands law, which states very specifically, for instance, that a developer can place only one new septic on 88 acres of forest land or 25 acres of farmland. This is what much of the yelling over lost development potential and equity is about. The courts have upheld it. Swan couldn’t override it; neither can her successor. Only the Legislature can.

Who will Swope, Klumpp, Kern and Alstede be blaming in six months?

Well, they won’t be able to blame Tom Borden, the deputy director.

After the council voted 9-5 to fire Swan, Borden announced his resignation. He has been the loyal second in command since roughly the beginning of the council. But after Swan’s dismissal, Borden surprisingly announced that it would be “against my conscience” to continue to work for the council.

It is especially poignant that the vote came just days before the release, today, of a national project by the Center for Public Integrity that sought to grade states based on their anti-corruption laws.

Amazingly, New Jersey finished first.

Of course, having the laws doesn’t mean political malfeasance won’t happen.

What the Highlands Council did wasn’t outright corruption.

That doesn't make it right.

Knowing she is a “hero” is cold comfort for Swan.

And unless the Christie administration suddenly finds a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, it will be little more than cold comfort that the new executive director will be able to provide to land owners seeking financial recompense.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

This column appears on Patch sites serving communities in Morris, Somerset, Sussex and Bergen Counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.

PatienceWorth March 20, 2012 at 10:40 PM
I love Democrats. So facile with the data. Do you....understand the difference between surface water and groundwater, Dan? It Takes A Village Idiot.
Matt Estrella March 21, 2012 at 06:00 PM
The Highlands Commission should be disbanded. Period. If this action brings the people of NJ one step closer to ridding itself of this useless bureaucratic organization then it was a good move. The same objectives of preserving NJ's water sources could have been met through other means than by operation another self aggrandizing commission.
Dan Grant March 21, 2012 at 06:14 PM
What means? Developement means loss of water resources. NJ has the highest number of people per sq. acre of any State in the Union. Why do we need more developement bringing more people.
James P. Page March 21, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Reminds me of when Berlin Road was developed all the way out to Barney Road, the development disrupted the natural aquifer and many people had to re-drill their wells deeper due to the changes in impervious coverage carrying the surface water away when it use to naturally percolate back into the water table. But, the developer lined their pockets and the surrounding home owners paid the bill. A Class Action Lawsuit should have been taken against the developers and they should have paid for the added burden to the surrounding home owners.
Dan Grant March 21, 2012 at 07:01 PM
Chris your venom is showing. That developement is now 10-12 years old, was studied and approved by the Township paid hydrologist and in addition brought municipal water to the corner of Barney and Brookwood at a cost of roughty $160 thousand paid for by the developer. The idea that it disrupted under ground water flow is not true, Besides that is not even in the Highlands area.

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