On Wednesday, April 16, the Great Swamp Watershed Association (GSWA) convened the first meeting of a new municipal advisory group known as the Great Swamp Upper Passaic Municipal Alliance (GSUPMA). The Alliance provides a voluntary, no-cost way for municipalities located along the upper reaches of the Passaic River and around New Jersey’s Great Swamp to coordinate efforts leading to local environmental, planning, and zoning improvements.
“We want the Alliance to provide a forum for holding a conversation among municipalities and their officials,” said GSWA Executive Director Sally Rubin, “Our communities face a lot of the same environmental and planning issues, and sometimes coordinating solutions together, on a regional basis, is going to be more effective and more economical.”
Representatives from ten New Jersey municipalities joined Rubin at the offices of The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in Morristown for a presentation by noted municipal planning consultant Frank Banisch. Banisch, who is the founder and president of Flemington-based Banisch Associates, Inc., discussed the current demographic trends that are driving renewed interest in living in walkable, more-urban downtowns, and are resulting in high vacancy rates for New Jersey’s suburban office space. These same trends are prompting many municipalities to re-examine old approaches town planning.
“We used to think that business as usual meant that we would always continue to prefer suburban places,” Banisch said, “but we were wrong.” “Twenty-five percent of New Jersey’s suburban office space is no longer needed,” he continued, “and there is heightened demand for smaller, more affordable residences, often in more urban areas where jobs and amenities are easily accessed.”
While municipal land-use planning provided the kernel for discussion at the first meeting of the GSUPMA, other issues of shared concern among the participating municipalities will take center stage at future meetings. Topics for upcoming meetings will include deer management policy and municipal options for reducing damage and speeding recovery from floods. Alliance organizers also anticipate developing conversations around other important local issues such as wastewater and stormwater management, open space management, and the development of green infrastructure and improvements in low-impact development strategies.
“The Alliance offers municipalities an opportunity to get out in front of these issues and take advantage of the best opportunities,” said Frank Banisch. “[Municipalities] have tremendous power in New Jersey,” he said, “and as soon as two of them work together to do something in the public interest—like when they engage in regional planning—they cannot be beaten.”
Area municipalities represented at the inaugural meeting of the GSUPMA included Bernards Township, Bernardsville Borough, Chatham Township, Harding Township, Long Hill Township, Mendham Borough, Morris Township, the Town of Newton, the Town of Morristown, and Washington Township. Chatham Township Committee Member Kathy Abbott was among those in attendance.
“I was very glad to learn about trends in density and growth in the region versus Chatham Township,” said Abbott, who also serves on the Chatham Township Planning Board, “The question of whether houses are ‘reloading’ with people of similar or changing demographics is essential to planning for ratables in the future.”
“We have to ask the question, what are people looking for now,” she added, “Simply having more space is not a triumph in itself anymore; and a resident’s ability to engage with the community, utility costs, and commuting distance are real factors.”
“I really look forward to doing this again,” said Sally Rubin. “The questions and comments after Frank’s presentation really spoke to the need for a group like this,” she said, “and I think the information and expertise that was shared got a lot of people thinking about how their towns could benefit from some new perspectives and by cooperating with their neighbors.”
For more information about the Great Swamp Upper Passaic Municipal Alliance (GSUPMA) please visit the Great Swamp Watershed Association online at GreatSwamp.org or call the organization at (973) 538-3500.
A video recording of Frank Banisch’s presentation to the GSUPMA is available online at YouTube.com/GreatSwampWatershed.