A new executive director to replace Lisa J. Plevin when she retires at the end of August was appointed by the New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council (Highlands Council) at a recent meeting. Ben Spinelli will lead the 23-person staff and report directly to the chairman of the Highlands Council. His annual salary will be $135,000. In addition to being one of the original members of the Highlands Council, Spinelli brings with him an exceptionally strong background in public safety and land use management.
“When we began this search, we were committed to finding someone with meaningful experience in the Highlands region and we were fortunate to have several very qualified candidates come forward,” Highlands Council Director Carl Richko said. “Ben’s tenure on the Highlands Council certainly set him apart, but he also brings deep expertise in environmental policy, municipal land use law, sustainable local, regional and state-wide land use practices, land preservation, agricultural retention and strategic planning. His experience and ties to the region are excellent.”
Spinelli began his career as a county prosecutor and trial attorney, later entering public service as an elected official. Holding the office of mayor in Chester Township, Morris County, for three terms from 1998 until 2007. During his tenure as mayor, Spinelli joined the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth as chief counsel and director of policy, later taking on the role of executive director for the agency before transitioning into the nonprofit sector and ultimately private consulting. It was during his time serving as mayor that Spinelli was appointed to the Highlands Council where he served from 2004 until 2006.
“I’ve always understood the importance of protecting the natural resources of the Highlands for people living both within and outside of the region,” said Spinelli. “It’s where I’ve lived with my family for the past 32 years and where I’ve invested my time, effort and passion for building a sustainable society. It all comes full circle with the chance to serve in a position that will draw upon all my knowledge, talents, and experience.”
In 2015 after serving as a senior policy advisor on a presidential task force for disaster recovery, Spinelli cofounded a consulting partnership providing services to businesses, landowners and government entities on matters of land use, land conservation, agricultural retention, regulatory matters, strategic planning and policy. That business merged with Greener by Design in 2017, where Spinelli served as principal, working with multiple corporations, energy partnerships and an ever-growing portfolio of government entities. Spinelli is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at NJIT and an adjunct professor of sustainability studies at Kean University.
“Everything that I have worked for the past two decades has prepared me for this position,” he said. “I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my professional career to sustainable planning issues, and in particular protection of the resources of the Highlands region. From being the mayor of a Highlands community, to advocating for the protection of the Highlands and sitting as a Highlands Council member, I have been deeply involved in the important issues facing this region. This in an incredible opportunity for me to continue to ensure that the Highlands will meet the needs of New Jersey’s residents for generations to come.”
Under the leadership of Plevin, who has been the executive director since 2018, the Highlands Council advanced numerous significant regional projects, including a number of important lake, watershed, and stormwater management plans that help municipalities address the root causes of harmful algae blooms, and the trail signage and digital mapping project for the New Jersey portion of the long-distance Highlands Trail. Plevin also worked to greatly increase the council’s outreach efforts with municipal, county, state and community partners resulting in more than 20 municipal and county planning grant awards for projects that advance the goals of the Highlands Act and Regional Master Plan.
“Lisa’s contributions to the Highlands Council for the past four years have been tremendous and will have a lasting impact not only on the agency, but the region as a whole,” Richko said. “Her engagement with municipal and county officials has resulted in greater trust and a stronger spirit of collaboration that is essential to implement of the Highlands Act and Regional Master Plan.”
Action taken by the council at the meeting will take effect following Governor Phil Murphy’s review and consideration of the meeting minutes, up to 10 business days from receipt of the minutes.
The Highlands Council is a regional planning agency, established in 2004 with the passage of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act and charged with implementation of the act.