STAFFORD – Phytoremediation. To many, it is just a fancy word for the process that allows trees or other plants to soak up and remove contaminants from the soil.
In the case of Stafford Mayor John Spodofora, it could signify something a little more meaningful.
Spodofora might just be the “phytoremediation” that Stafford needed over 30 years ago. Rooted in the Stafford community his entire life, some might say he replaced many of the “contaminants” in Stafford Township, producing a healthier community through his public service.
Spodofora took to public service after his involvement in a local stormwater management project. From there, he moved on to planning and zoning boards, became a member of the council, and then acted as mayor for the past 8-9 years.
From the 1980s to 2018, Spodofora has seen the Manahawkin Lake go from un-swimmable to one of the cleanest lakes in the nation; he has watched the community bounce back from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012; and he has seen the community he grew up in evolve into what it is today, one he defines as “full of successes.”
In an interview with Jersey Shore Online, Spodofora reflected on his greatest accomplishments, his hopes for the township, and his plans for the future as his days as mayor come to a bittersweet end.
Two of Spodofora’s greatest personal accomplishments have gained him national recognition.
“I think the biggest thing I’m proud of is a combination of cleaning up Manahawkin Lake and having it declared as the most successful lake restoration project in the nation,” he said, as well as “the design of a stormwater management system that also won the EPA National Award of Excellence.”
The 1980s-90s lake restoration project at Manahawkin Lake was not only one of national renown, but it also demonstrated the strength of the community.
“When I needed to do all the studies to qualify for funding to dredge the lake and clean it up, most of the volunteers” were Stafford residents, said Spodofora.
The Manahawkin Lake was closed to swimming for about 11 years prior to the project, causing it to become eutrophic, he explained, making it more like a swamp than a lake.
“I got a grant to do the study and, I still remember, it was about $30,000,” said Spodofora. “I knew we couldn’t do the study and meet all the parameters of the study with the grant of $30,000.”
In order to complete all aspects of the study, Spodofora called upon the community to volunteer their efforts, while he set aside the whole $30,000 grant for lab work.
“I said ‘I need help’ and people came with airplanes to do the aerial mapping, aerial shots for the dye dispersion studies, to do everything,” he said. “People volunteered their planes, people came with their boats…we did all of the work.”
The lake study was so successful that Stafford Township was granted the entire EPA Clean Lakes Program funds for the nation for that year, he added.
This project won Spodofora the National Presidential Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Award, presented by the late President George Bush at the White House in 1990.
“Every time I drive by that lake and see people swimming in it, it just lifts my heart,” he said.
Spodofora’s other major project continues with the theme of environmental improvement: stormwater management design. This project was done prior to becoming an elected official, he said.
“There was a development they wanted to build by my house, they wanted to put condos and all this other stuff,” he said. “I said ‘No, you can’t do that it’s too wet, there’s nowhere for the stormwater to go’.”
He then took it upon himself to study the topic on his own time and come up with the solution of “underground recharge.”
“Our whole neighborhood got together and we fought it and we won, and in that process I learned a lot about stormwater management,” he said.
Spodofora was motivated to get involved because of his “there’s a better way of doing things” perspective. “You learn real quick that it [running a town] is a combination of quality of life issues and fiscal issues.”
Rather than letting underground water tables be infiltrated by salt water from the nearby bays and oceans, Spodofora’s solution was to maintain the groundwater level “to keep salt water from going into our municipal wells, so why not recharge it back into the ground as it would’ve been prior to development.”
Remember phytoremediation? Well, it also plays an important role in Stafford Township, keeping the groundwater clean by absorbing toxins from the soil, he added.
Spodofora’s stormwater management innovation won him the EPA National Award of Engineering Excellence in 1994, which later became the basis for the national standards, he added.
“I look at things differently and I observe certain ways of making things better,” he said.
However, he won’t be able to effect such change from the dais much longer.
Spodofora noted that he wishes he had more time to work on some of his most difficult tasks, such as building berms to prevent flooding. After Hurricane Sandy, an admittedly challenging time for him, Spodofora noted that the addition of berms would be really helpful in the event of another major flooding incident.
He also said that he is “very proud of our open space,” and hoped to work on further improving Stafford’s utilization of open space. According to Spodofora, 70 percent of the township is dedicated to open space.
On leaving, he admitted “it’s mixed feelings, I’m kind of ready to take a different path and yet, I’ll miss what I’m doing greatly.”
Spodofora, an avid Theodore Roosevelt fan, added that at each job he’s worked, he has been guided by the Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even checkered by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much or suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat.”
The quote sits as a framed reminder in his office of his mission to “dare mighty things.”
While he does boast various awards and acknowledgements for his public service achievements, Spodofora maintains that he does everything out of a love for Stafford and its residents.
“I love the town and I love the people here,” he said, and he has no plans on leaving any time soon.
With plans to become an active volunteer with the Barnegat Bay Commission, Spodofora won’t be disappearing from civil service altogether.
Stafford’s new mayor Gregory Myhre and his Stafford Conservatives are now ready and waiting to take their seats on the dais. Spodofora hopes that “they continue on with what we’ve been doing, yet I want them to…[develop] new ways of looking at things…and I want them to always balance quality of life,” with fiscal responsibility.