Grant helps county take a good look at sustainability

UNION COUNTY — Do you know where your town will be in 2032? Most towns in New Jersey are so busy focusing on the day-to-day needs of their municipalities there is little or no time left to plan for the distant future. But what about the next generation?

Who will decide whether there is a need for more transportation, affordable housing, land recycling or mixed use development in their community? Not to mention health and education needs. According to Cherron Rountree, Union County Deputy Director of the Department of Parks and Community Renewal, whether a community is sustainable or not has everything to do with its economic base, ability to grow jobs, leverage existing assets and ensure there are the highest education opportunities.

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 13 counties and five cities in Northern New Jersey have the opportunity to look closer at planning for a sustainable future. Union County is one of those involved in the year-long effort to develop a guide for the future by hosting a series of seminars focusing on local planning.

Rountree has put on a series of local outreach meetings, each targeting a specific area critical to developing a plan for the future. Since early spring there have been four outreach meetings, including economic competitiveness, transportation options, housing choices and supporting communities and neighborhoods
“We are most interested in how these factors work and combine to make our communities more vibrant and sustainable for the future,” said Rountree, adding that information gathered at these meetings from stakeholders such as elected officials, health and public safety employees along with others, will be used to prepare meaningful planning tools aimed at sustainability in Union County.

Why does this matter? According to Rountree, communities with long range plans for a sustainable future can strengthen their economic base, align existing plans, programs and regulations; improve transportation connections and choices so people can link where they live with where they need to go; focus residential and employment growth in areas of existing infrastructure; and engage all facets of a community to develop long-term planning goals.
In an interview last week, Rountree explained that as a partner in Together North Jersey, Union County is sharing a $4 million grant that hopefully will help local communities plan ahead to 2032.

“Right now our local communities are not sustainable,” she said, but noted that this effort is not a “green” project. Rather, counties and cities involved have been focusing on economics, housing, transportation, livable communities, health and safety as well as the arts and culture.

Recently Rountree hosted a meeting in Cranford that focused on Supporting Communities and Neighborhoods. Approximately 40 people attended the meeting, including Berkeley Heights Mayor Joseph Bruno, Cranford Police Chief Eric Mason, Rahway Regional Health Department Director Warren Hehl, and township administrators and other officials from municipalities throughout the county. Rountree pointed out that feedback from the meeting was positive.

“For instance, Chief Mason thanked me for including him because he said public safety is usually left out in these efforts,” she said, adding that when you are looking to the future and not the immediate needs of a community, it takes planning and public safety is a critical component.
“Overall, the theme of our last meeting was developing a strong sense of community and how that can be achieved,” Rountree said, noting that “if people feel a sense of community, they place value on their community.”

“An important part of this entire effort is working on working together to prepare for the future,” she added, stressing that “someone has to figure out where we are all going.”

“I think it all comes down to asking ‘wait a minute,’ where are we headed as a town and are we on target?” Rountree said.
Making this venture easier is that the county received $110,000 to develop this program locally, the majority going for staff salaries and hosting the seminars that hopefully provide input from everyone, including community members.

“We want to know how residents feel about the future of their towns, where they are going and if it is the right direction,” Rountree added, suggesting that residents visit the website togethernorthjersey.com for a closer look at how this initiative works.