Highlands still ‘thorny’ situation
CHESTER — When the Highlands Water Protection Act was passed by the state legislature in 2004, many farmers in the 1,343-square-mile area were worried about the impact on their property values.
Some have continued to blame the state and the Highlands Council, the entity created as a regional planning agency for the expansive region, although the Highlands Act itself and the legislature’s failure to fully fund the Transfer of Development Rights bank are major issues for compensation, according to new Council Executive Director Ben Spinelli.
“Issues of landowner compensation has been thorny,” Council Vice Chairman Kurt Alstede said. “Farmers are angry at the council because of the absence of TDR funding and for better mechanics of compensation. Compensation cast a dark shadow on the Act for farmers.”
He added that the council is powerless to do anything about compensation, only the legislature can act on that.
As a farmer himself, Alstede said he wasn’t dismissing the feelings of farmers who felt the value of their land was stolen. There was an impact on their balance sheets but farmers were not inhibited in what they could do, he added.
Alstede said he is optimistic that Spinelli’s reset of the Council’s Agriculture Advisory Committee which was set up by former Executive director Lisa Plevin could help the relationship with farmers.
As the only original member still on the council, Alstede has seen the Regional Master Plan “mature” since it was put into place in 2008, he said. In the same vein, he has seen the agriculture community warm up to the Highlands. Alstede, of Chester Township, is one of two farmers on the council. The other is Richard Vohden of Green Township.
Alstede said he is very pleased with Spinelli’s appointment, noting that he is “custom made to be Executive Director.”
Spinelli came to the Council directly from the private sector as one of the founders of Greener by Design, a consulting firm based in New Brunswick. Prior to that, he was involved with public entities, not only as an original member of the Highlands Council, but also serving on the Garden State Conservation Trust, the State Agricultural Development Commission, the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust Board, the Morris County Open Space and Farmland Preservation Trust and the county League of Municipalities. He was also mayor of Chester Township.
Two of the first meetings Spinelli had once he was hired were with Susan Payne, executive director of the SADC, and Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
Furey said it is a positive development to have Spinelli as executive director. “He is well known and trusted by local government and landowners.” He knows the Highlands and “has a strong affinity for it.” he said.
“He’s got some ideas and I’m looking forward to supporting him,” Furey said, adding Spinelli’s track record of accomplishments makes him a perfect fit for the council and that he is fully supportive of the farmers.
Spinelli said he looks forward to working with Farm Bureau as well.
“They are smart policy people,” he said of the leadership. “They always will listen.”
He also admires the SADC.
“They are one of the most effective state agencies,” she said. “They are businesslike and transparent.”
The Highlands Council can be of particular assistance in both farmland and open space preservation when land doesn’t fit squarely into the criteria. He calls these “orphan” parcels.
They are often smaller and possibly isolated or do not have 50-percent tillable soil.
“We could perhaps fill in the fund gap,” he said, noting he is in favor of specialized funding for Highlands specific parcels.
“I will speak to the governor’s office about annual donations to use to match Highlands Conservation Act programs.”
He admits it’s not a panacea, but the demand is high and he looks forward to putting these farms back into the picture as possibly preservable.
“Farmers are unique,” he said. “Very independent, with strong opinions.”
He said he has a good relationship not only with the SADC but also with people in the farming community in Warren and Morris counties.
He can make information available to farmers and bring them together with the SADC.
“Communication and open dialogue” are key, he said.
“I’ve made a lot of farmland preservation deals. So many start with a phone call. A year later, I get a call back, when the time is right.”
He would like to see state Infrastructure Bank funding to bring money to the table to implement projects on the lands that have been preserved.
Spinelli said he believes every governing agency in the Highlands needs to reclaim prime agricultural soils, forests and bodies of water/wetlands, he said.
Investment in infrastructure than violates these valuable resources should be prohibited.