Profile: She Helps Keep Drinking Water from the Highlands Clear and Clean

A mix of ballet and rough-and-tumble Morris County politics helped prepare Margaret Nordstrom to be executive director of the Highlands Council

Margaret Nordstrom is executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Council.
Who: Margaret Nordstrom

Age: 66

Home: She lives with her husband Bill in Washington Township, Morris County, in the Highlands region

What she does: Executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Council, which drew up and is implementing a master plan for the 860,000-acre region covering parts of seven north and central Jersey counties. The region and the council’s main missions are to protect the quality of the drinking water that flows from the Highlands to more than half the state’s residents.

What she thought she would do: Nordstrom saw herself as a college professor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and government from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and a master’s from Rutgers University. While Nordstrom was pursuing her master’s degree, she saw that political science was essentially an all-male department and figured her chances at becoming a professor were “not promising.” Instead, she taught ballet for 20 years. ”

How she got into politics: “Like many women, I was asked,” Nordstrom said. In the late 1980s, she began attending township committee meetings. The first time she ran herself, she said, she lost by six votes. “Back in those days, I was still pretty shy,” Nordstrom recalled. “I got over that real fast.” Persistence paid off and Nordstrom won a seat on the committee, where she served for a dozen years beginning in 1991. While on the committee, Nordstrom worked to preserve farmland and help maintain the township’s rural character; develop ordinances protecting water, steep slopes, ridgelines and scenic vistas; and help write a plan to ensure the township meet its affordable housing obligation.

How she moved up in the ranks: Nordstrom got involved with an organization whose goal was improving the quality of life in Morris County that began as Morris 2000 and later was known as Morris Tomorrow. That got her interested in countywide issues and prompted her to run for the county freeholder board. She won, and spent 12 years on the board, serving as its budget chair, deputy director, and director. “It gave me a chance to really stretch as a person,” she said. “There was never a dull moment.”

The 2011 election that was certainly not dull: A thoroughly red county, the results of the June Republican primary determine who will win county-level seats. Since the Morris GOP does not grant a county line to any candidate, the primaries can be free-for-alls. (This is where Gov. Chris Christie cut his political teeth, winning a freeholder seat as an upstart and then losing it three years later in another contested primary.)

Nordstrom said she “didn’t really have a good feeling” going into the June primary that year. When the votes were counted, Nordstrom appeared to have lost by a handful of votes to a 23-year old political novice named Hank Lyon. She filed suit and the Superior Court Assignment Judge set aside the results due to a campaign-finance reporting violation — Lyon’s father gave him $16,000 a week before the election but the contribution was not reported until after the vote.

At a party convention, Republicans chose Nordstrom to be their candidate by a slim margin, and she won the November election easily. However, a month after she began what would have been her fifth term on the board, an appellate panel overturned the earlier Superior Court ruling and unseated Nordstrom. This time, she did not appear before the GOP convention and Lyon won easily. “It was eight months of my life in total turmoil,” Nordstrom said. “When I lost the appeal, that’s when I decided I had better think of something else to do that’s more stable.”

But first, more controversy: Around the same time, the New Jersey Highlands Council, which drew up and is implementing a master plan for the region, was firing its executive director, Eileen Swan. Revamped by Christie, who is no fan of the state Highlands law, a divided council in April replaced Swan with Eugene Feyl, a Morris County freeholder expected to have a primary battle, in a move many say was orchestrated by the governor’s office. Feyl managed a food-service business and lacked environmental credentials.

In May, the council chose Nordstrom as its deputy director by an 11-4 vote. Even those who opposed her appointment said she had a good environmental protection and land-preservation record. “It’s not like it was a complete uproar,” she said, reflecting back. “I’d like to think I was hired for my skills.” The rumors of Feyl’s appointment to the top spot being temporary — in order to boost his state pension — proved true. He resigned last spring. Nordstrom served as acting director before being given the job three months ago, this time with only one member voting “no” and with both council members and environmentalists praising her.

What she is doing at the helm: Nordstrom said the networking skills she built during her years as an elected official have proven vital, since the Highlands director spends a lot of time interacting with local officials. All but a dozen of the 88 municipalities in the Highlands have filed a notice of their intention to conform some or all their land with the master plan, and the council is still working with municipalities and counties on that effort. “We are trying to be more user-friendly to the towns and counties,” Nordstrom said. The council is also in the midst of a master plan monitoring report to advise its work on updating the plan, as required by the Highlands law. “We are now challenged to assess the impact of the regional master plan on the Highlands,” Nordstrom said. “Have we been successful in our mission? Have we been harmful? The whole process is being data-driven.” Landowners have been complaining since the law was passed more than a decade ago that it hurt their property values without providing them with compensation.

Nordstrom said the monitoring report will include a fiscal analysis designed to determine whether the law has negatively affected the economy of the region. The council is also soliciting public comment about the plan and its impact. This keeps Nordstrom busy. “I love the work,” she said. “I think it’s important work … There’s still a lot to learn; for me, that continues to be the biggest challenge.”

What she does when she’s not working: Nordstrom’s leisure activities are broad. She does needlepoint. She says she fishes “whenever I can,” especially at the Shore. And she is skilled in Italian, deciding to learn it after reading Under the Tuscan Sun — the story of the author’s adventures as she buys and restores an abandoned Tuscan villa. “I absolutely fell in love with the language,” Nordstrom said, adding that she keeps up with her Italian through reading. Among the novels she has tackled in Italian: those in the Harry Potter series.