Feyl tapped as executive director for Highlands

AFP Correspondent

CHESTER TOWNSHIP — Following the politically charged ouster of New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council Executive Director Eileen Swan in March, Morris County Freeholder Gene F. Feyl was named the organization’s fourth executive director at its April meeting by a hotly contested 8-7 vote of council resolution 2012-13.
Most recently a consultant for Kraft Foods, Feyl has nearly three decades of public service experience as an elected official in Denville Township and Morris County.
As executive director, Feyl is key in the decision making process, offering case-by-case recommendations to the 15-member volunteer council, which has been tasked with implementation of the New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act of 2004 that placed protections on the 860,000 acres over seven counties in northern New Jersey that supply roughly two-thirds of the state’s water.
For his $116,000 salary, he will also serve as the council’s chief administrative officer and oversee the 25-member administrative operation.
The council came under fire, however, during the public comment portion of the resolution consideration for Feyl’s qualifications and experience and its failure to perform an exhaustive national search.
The job vacancy was not advertised and Feyl was the only candidate interviewed.
“I strongly believe and have a high level of confidence in the fact that Gene can not only perform the duties as executive director, but will excel in the position,” Council Chairman Jim Rilee countered to those questioning the process and Feyl’s qualifications.
“Gene is well-versed to not only lead the Highlands Council staff, but to deal with the public and the advocates of varying and diverse opinions of our Highlands community and is also capable of taking direction and performing the duties that this council will require of him.”
Many audience members voiced concern that Feyl would be seen as only a political appointment serving at the behest of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, which is in favor of a more pro-landowner, pro-business council.
The governor is on record as saying the Highlands Act is “based on a lie” because it has not provided much compensation to landowners whose properties lost value as a result of the development restrictions.
Numerous council members had grown frustrated with the direction the organization was taking, believing too much attention was being paid to conservation.
Many of the farmers felt the Highlands Act had caused them undue economic hardship because of the declining value of their properties. Farmers did not feel as though this concern was being addressed or even considered. Council Vice Chairman Kurt Alstede, a lifelong resident of the Highlands and a full-time family farmer in Chester Township, was perhaps the most vocal supporter of the resolution to oust Swan.
“Through this process, I have watched the Highlands area turned into colonies, an area of land where resources are taken without being paid for,” he said. “We were promised compensation that we haven’t received. If we had an executive director that was too pro-development, in your opinions, you would be applauding the actions of the council right now — if we saw to remove a director who was too pro-development and not enough pro-conservation.
“But because it’s the opposite, we’re spineless, horrible, ill-considered council members who lack integrity. Integrity is doing what’s right when no one is watching. And I’m prepared to do what’s right while you’re all watching. I look forward to the opportunity to have a new chance to right some of these wrongs. This is a good opportunity to achieve some balance.”
In 2007, the New Jersey Farm Bureau drafted a list of what Highlands farmers needed from the developing Highlands regional master plan. Sitting atop the list, still unresolved five years later, is “an ongoing, continuing source of funding” to provide the “fair compensation” Highlands landowners were promised by the legislature in the Highlands Act.
According to NJFB, the landowners are asking for appraisals based on pre-Highlands/Department of Environmental Protection rules values.
“The farm community is hoping the new administration will take a look at all the issues,” said New Jersey Farm Bureau research assistant Helen Heinrich. “We believe you can have environmental protection efforts and be business friendly. It’s a great opportunity to look at some of the Department of Environmental Protection standards that we feel are too high. The council has the right to offer suggestions to DEP about how to protect the lands better.”
A member of the task force that crafted the Highlands Act and the council’s executive director since 2007, Swan was relieved of her duties by a 9-5 vote of council resolution 2012-10, despite vocal audience and council support.
During her tenure as executive director, the council adopted the Highland Regional Master Plan and began the approval process for municipal plans conforming to the Highlands master plan.
Presently, 39 Highlands towns have had their plans approved. There are another 20 in the pipeline.
“It is a sad day for the Highlands and it sets a dangerous precedent in the future,” said New Jersey Sierra Club representative Kate Millsaps.
West Milford Councilman Carl Richko addressed Swan directly, telling her that she had more integrity than anyone on the council, adding, “If you don’t have your job after today, it’s because of nasty, dirty politics.”
A number of Highlands landowners agreed with Alstede that the direction of the council has to change. Pohatcong property owner Jerry Kern, commented that the Highlands Act “ruined his business in construction and plans for his children.”
Tewksbury’s Hank Klumpp added that he is in favor of a change and hopes the next executive director is the charm.
“How can it be any worse to me? What more do I stand to lose?” he asked.