Kermit the Frog thought he had it right when he sang, "It's not easy being green," but in Monroe Township, it's not only easy being green—it's their priority to keep as much green in their community as possible. As the largest community in Middlesex County—42 square miles to be exact—maintaining a balance between open space and development has been an ongoing goal of the hardworking government and its residents.
Maintaining that balance has enabled Monroe Township to receive accolades for its achievements, including one very special one from The National Arbor Day Foundation, which named Monroe Township a "Tree City USA" in cooperation with the National Association of State Foresters and the USDA Forest Service.
Tree City, USA
To achieve the Tree City honor, Monroe Township had to meet four standards: to have a tree board or department; a tree care ordinance; a comprehensive community forestry program; and an official Arbor Day observance. In addition to the Tree City designation, the community also received an Arbor Day Foundation Growth Award.
In a January 2006 column—written at a time when the township was fighting to preserve more land—Monroe Township Mayor Richard Pucci wrote: "The residents and elected officials of Monroe Township are overwhelmingly in favor of preserving open space and farmland, and we expect to act quickly and decisively in order to save these lands from development and to maintain the rural character of our town. The acquisition of undeveloped lands is just one of the things that makes Monroe Township a great place to live."
And it's no wonder that a township with such a rich agricultural history, and prime location right off exit 8A of the New Jersey Turnpike, would want to rein in what free space they have left. To date, they have effectively preserved a whopping 50 percent of their total land.
A Little History
According to summaries of the township's history, the township was named in 1838 for the fifth US President, James Monroe. The township borders South Brunswick Township, Cranbury Township, Helmetta, East Brunswick, Manalapan Township, and East Windsor, and completely surrounds Jamesburg.
For many decades, it was largely a farming community, producing peaches, cranberries and potatoes. Other forges, mills, crossroad stores, one-room schoolhouses, distilleries and taverns began to appear and define the many tiny hamlets we now know as Applegarth, Half Acre, Prospect Plains, Union Valley, Old Church, Gravel Hill, Dey Grove, Mount's Mill and more. Many of these names are now the names of local roads.
The arrival of the 19th century brought rapid change; the first railroad, Camden and Amboy Rail Road, leading to a population surge and new industry. Later, in 1918, Forsgate Farms was established as a dairy, fruit, and poultry farm, as well as an ice creamery.
The farms diminished in the 1960s, at the same time when the population was growing and Rossmoor, the first of the township's now-common planned retirement communities was opened. Today, Rossmoor has 2,300 homes consisting of co-ops and condos with 3,500 residents, who enjoy 418 acres situated around an 18-hole golf course, and a full range of activities, clubs and events. Five more communities later joined Rossmoor: Concordia, Clearbrook, Greenbriar at Whittingham, The Ponds, and Encore.
Monroe Township Today
Today, Monroe Township has a population of approximately 35,000, with half of the population living in one of the township's senior gated communities or traditional and single-family condominium homes.
"This adult community real estate market still prospers because of the pricing—which is less than the market rate—and the fact that we have a great environment for the seniors and the community," says Gerald W. Tamburro, Monroe Township's city council president.
Tamburro also explains that five more adult gated developments are either currently under construction or will begin construction shortly—including Regency at Monroe, a Toll Brothers property with 1,600 units planned so far. Renaissance at Monroe in Middlesex County is also currently being built and will have 348 units within this gated entry community, and will include a 15,500-square-foot clubhouse, an indoor and outdoor pool, state-of-the-art exercise facilities, library with computer center, card rooms, and much more. Four Seasons by K. Hovnanian will build two developments with 200 units each and Lennar has approval for 900 senior units with less than 10 percent built right now.
"These communities are very popular because the baby boomers are starting to look at them," says Bill Gumpper, broker/owner of ERA Center Point Realty in Monroe Township. "And if you went back the average buyer used to be 75 to 80 years old, but today the buyer gets younger and younger."
But don't draw the conclusion from the proliferation of active retirement developments that Monroe Township is sleepy, or not family-friendly. Quite the opposite - young families are relocating to the area and the current school system is in need of expansion to accommodate the extra matriculates.
In addition to greenery and landscape, the younger residents can also enjoy a huge recreation program and an award-winning school system. Safety is also an issue for all residents and Monroe Township boasts the second lowest crime rate in Middlesex County. Statistics released show Monroe Township's crime rate for 2005 was only 7.4 offenses per 1,000 residents.
You also won't find golden arches or being able to have it 'your way' here. Fast food restaurants, and other drive-ins, are a no-no, thanks to a no-drive-thru ordinance. Monroe Township still offers basic retail amenities, but their central location allows quick and easy access to neighboring towns for shopping and other entertainment needs.
"In the town, there is one large superstore, and a lot of strip malls, but we are adjacent to Princeton and the shuttle bus offers free transportation," says Helga Stoessler, public advocate for Monroe Township.
However, some entrepreneurs, like Jose Martin-Serrano, who opened the doors of the Mediterranean-style Europa restaurant on Applegarth Road in May of 2006, recognized the need for residents to think local and spend money within their own community.
"You had to drive a half-hour to find a decent restaurant," says Martin-Serrano. "The area is growing tremendously—they are building more than 10,000 new homes in the near future. A lot of the residents coming in make good money, but why have to travel to go to eat?"
Martin-Serrano also wants to bring New York City flavor to Monroe Township. "I'm trying to bring Broadway-style dinner shows, singles nights, flamenco nights, wine tastings and more to this community," says Martin-Serrano.
Gumpper says that, growth aside, the real estate market is still somewhat soft and there is a lot of inventory on the market right now, but he's hoping change is just around the corner.
In the township's various condo association developments, there a variety of price points and floor plans to choose from, including freestanding homes, or one and two-floor townhomes, starting at $100,000 to a $450,000 single-family home.
"What draws people to this area is our location and proximity to Philadelphia and Manhattan," says Regina Haimer, branch manager of GMAC Real Estate and a resident of Monroe Township after relocating six years ago from East Brunswick. "The arts are here, there are great medical facilities and the schools are phenomenal. People are friendly here and it has a small-town feel. Plus it's so diverse and having the seniors and the young people adds so much to the town."
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.
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