Many councillors when given cause to reflect on their time often begin to name various developments and pieces of infrastructure as proof of their good deeds.
Port Stephens councillor John Nell is quite the opposite.
“I like to point to what we haven’t developed. I’m not anti-development but sometimes the best outcome is to preserve something,” he said.
Cr Nell receives the Medal of the Order of Australia for more than 29 years’ service to the Department of Primary Industries as a marine biologist and 30 years’ service to local government – both with a focus on environmental outcomes – as cited in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Born in Holland Cr Nell arrived in Australia at age 21, with his wife Adriana, first completing a doctorate of animal nutrition with the University of Sydney. He worked farm jobs in places like Tamworth and would continue to study with the University of Western Sydney, before he joined Fisheries in 1979, specializing in oyster biology.
In 1983 he “came to be elected” on Port Stephens Council, as if by accident.
“It was bloody Bob Martin, he said ‘sign here, we’ll work the rest out’. Well, it was along those lines,” Cr Nell said.
“Some people hate it and don’t last long. Others hang around for a long time like a bad smell.”
His motivation was personal.
“Because of my background I did have an interest in environmental issues, I’m a firm believer that you have to look after the environment,” he said.
“I’m not sure we’re winning at the moment with the cargo lost from the YM Efficiency, and climate change.”
Next year will mark 50 years in Australia. The juxtaposition of his heritage and Australian life evident, an Akubra hangs above several pairs of clogs at the entry to his Corlette home. Though his accent has not softened.
“In local government you have to be true to yourself, you have to stick to your values,” he said.
“My success has been sticking to my values.”
Sticking to those values helped preserve the land under what was Gan Gan Army Camp, under environmental conservation zoning.
“It’s probably the most pristine piece of bushland on the Tomaree peninsula, more so than the National Park,” he said.
The private purchase of a piece of land adjoining the old camp almost saw the contiguous parcel transformed into a developer’s dream.
“It was bizarre how it all went. But if it wasn’t for the LEP [Local Environment Plan] 2000, it would otherwise have been rezoned for development,” he said.
His other win was to block the extension of Worimi Drive Salamander Bay that would have made way for hundreds more homes. Instead the land now forms part of the Mambo Wetlands Reserve.
“I would like to point out that I’m not anti-development, it just has to be right,” he said.
“It was the right decision but council forewent real money to do it, probably $2 million.”
It was a decision true to himself unlike the time he backed Bruce MacKenzie in his plans to develop the Salamander Bay Shopping Centre. He learnt this much after he was dumped at the 1987 election.
“It was a very emotional issue for the residents and for good reason but it became very personal,” he said.
“A big supermarket in the middle of Nelson Bay wouldn’t have worked. Nelson Bay has to be a place for tourism and restaurants.
His support of the shopping centre couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“I was glad he lost the election when he did,” Adriana said.
“It was an extremely difficult time at home with four children under the age of 16.
“I found it extremely difficult to cope while he was out night after night. When he lost, I almost think it saved our marriage.”
Cr Nell said the loss was inevitable.
“It had to happen. My only real disappointment now is that Nelson Bay really hasn’t reinvented itself.”
Still, this won’t see him support 10 storey development across the board.
“It would be a nonsense to talk about Nelson Bay being a fishing village anymore, those days are gone, and in the last boom we saw seven storeys. I’m prepared to support eight, beyond that we’re blocking peoples views.”
Such topics are frequently brought to his attention. Whether it’s at the pool for a dip, at church on Sunday or at a barbecue.
“Everyone wants to talk about what’s going on, I accept it, it’s part of my life. looking after the little people is important, it’s what [former councillor] Sally Dover did so well. look after the little things and the big things take care of themselves.”
His OAM also acknowledges his commitment to the Tomaree Sports Council.
“I believe that people should keep fit and I do,” the avid mountain bike rider said.
“I personally don’t play ball sports because my coordination is hopeless. I could never be a cricketer.”
Cr Nell’s other areas of service have included chairing the Myall Lakes Estuary and Coastal Zone Consultative Committee (current) and the Port Stephens - Great Lakes Marine Parks Advisory Committee, NSW Marine Estate (current).
In 2006 he received the NSW Premier's Public Sector Award and in 2017 the Outstanding Service Award for 30 Years Service on Port Stephens Council.