Profile: Eileen Swan, Lightning Rod for Highlands Controversies

Forced out as executive director of Highlands planning council, Swan was recently honored with Environmental Legacy Award from New Jersey Environmental Lobby

eileen swan
Title: Policy manager for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the state’s largest land trust, which lobbies in support of farmland preservation and open-space protection; former executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council, which oversees the master plan for the 860,000-acre region in North and Central Jersey.

Age: 53

What she is best known for: Swan has been involved in the effort to preserve the Highlands region for a decade. In fall 2003, when she was working as a consultant for the NJCF, then-Gov. James McGreevey named her to the Highlands Task Force, which in March 2004 issued recommendations for preserving roughly half the region that stretches from the New York border in Bergen County to the Delaware River in Hunterdon. By the end of the year, Swan was named one of the original 15 members of the Highlands Council.

Fifteen months after leaving the council — she headed the Office of Smart Growth — Swan returned as its executive director. She was the third director in less than three years and lasted the longest, almost five years. She oversaw the completion of the long-delayed master plan and brought dozens of municipalities into conformance with the plan, even some that did not need to do so. “I came in during a very difficult time: The council was under great scrutiny, the draft plan was not well received, and we had poor relations with other state agencies and municipalities,” Swan said. “We turned it all around. We delivered a plan that stood up to many constitutional tests. We delivered an implementation plan, began the process of conformance.”

Why her departure made news: In March 2012 a much different and divided council fired Swan in a move environmentalists complained was politically motivated by Gov. Chris Christie’s opposition to the Highlands law and his desire to help a freeholder in his home county of Morris — Gene Feyl who would have faced a difficult primary had he decided to seek reelection. A month after firing Swan, the council voted 8-7 to hire Feyl to replace her. “The end was particularly difficult because of the circumstances,” Swan said. She was given the option of resigning but chose instead to air the matter in a public session.

“I determined the best thing I could do was to create a truthful record, to insist that it be done publicly and let the record show what was done … In the end, I was proud of the way I went out. It was in the exact same manner in which I had done my job, with total commitment and total integrity.” A video of the session is still online.

Tom Borden, the deputy director who had been with the body since its beginning, was so disgusted with the way in which the council fired Swan that he immediately resigned in protest without himself having another job to go to. “To watch that, it was a circus,” said Borden, the council’s original chief counsel, who is a former state deputy attorney general and had worked at Rutgers Law School’s environmental law clinic. “I hadn’t decided definitely what to do beforehand, it was the actions of the committee that night that made up my mind. I said if this is what’s become of you, I want no part of it.” Borden said Swan left the council as she had led it, with grace, “able to hold her head high.”

Why you might recognize her face: Last fall, in an effort to publicly let the Christie administration know of their unhappiness with his policies, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition and Pinelands Preservation Alliance put an ad on a billboard across from the headquarters of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton. The billboard proclaimed, “Got Water? Thank the Pinelands and Highlands.” It featured a smiling Swan holding a glass of water. “It was a great way to recognize her for her work,” said Julia Somers, executive director of the coalition that did not always agree with Swan. “However, we always felt we could always work with Eileen; her door was always open to everyone.”

Why she was in the news lately: Last April, Swan received the Environmental Legacy Award from the New Jersey Environmental Lobby. It recognizes individuals whose personal or career contributions have created an identifiable legacy for future generations. Assemblyman John F. McKeon (D-Essex) and lead Assembly sponsor of the 2004 Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, praised Swan’s work on the Highlands Council, first as a member and then as its leader.

“In the more than eight-year history of the Highlands Act,” said McKeon, “no one has done more to bring the benefits of this critical program to fruition than Eileen Swan. She employed her skills and dedication to work with leaders at every level of government to implement regional planning to protect the source of drinking water for more than 60 percent of the state’s population. Eileen is a selfless leader who put good policy first.” Swan called the honor, “extremely gratifying and very generous.”

What she’s doing today: Last September, NJCF hired Swan as a policy manager. She is working on several projects, including models for managing easements, land acquisitions, and watershed protection, as well as doing open-space advocacy work. She has been in Trenton to support legislation to dedicate a portion of state sales tax revenue for open-space preservation. The Legislature’s latest attempt at getting a question on the ballot failed to gain enough support in the Senate on Monday.

What you might not know about her: Swan had not planned to work in the fields of environmental preservation or planning. Growing up in Avoca Village, a small town in County Wicklow, Ireland, she worked as a high school teacher and was the only certified female rugby coach in the country at the time. Her degrees, from University College of Dublin, are in English literature and history. As a teenager, she helped manage her parents’ hotel, which is where she met her husband Ken, who she married in 1984.

How she got involved in politics: On attending her first parent-teacher association meeting, Swan learned the group planned to disband because it could not find anyone willing to lead it. So she volunteered. She became involved in a contentious local issue: then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman wanted to open up the former Sen. Garrett W. Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital in the township to all patients, including the criminally insane. The Whitman administration backed down and Swan wound up in local government, spending six years on the township committee, including two as its mayor. “None of that was planned,” said Swan. “I had no political aspirations. I got involved in a local issue and having won the issue, people said I should run for mayor.”

Hometown: Lebanon Township, where she lives with her husband and their daughter.