1. – Community Mobilization in Response to COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic was the defining event of 2020, and it presented a significant challenge to Montgomery Township residents, as well as to their municipal staff and elected leaders. Approximately 600 Montgomery Township residents tested positive for the coronavirus in 2020, and eight residents died of the disease in 2020. Though tragic, these were some of the lowest infection and death rates in New Jersey.
This health crisis has been emotionally and economically difficult, but it also brought our community together, and allowed our township professionals and first responders to shine.
At the very onset of the pandemic, we received the good news that the Montgomery Department of Health had become one of the smallest in the nation to receive national public health accreditation. The department worked tirelessly to communicate with the public, investigate and trace COVID cases, advise local businesses and schools, and coordinate with county and state health department partners. Our Office of Emergency Management helped to procure and distribute personal protective equipment, helped enforce safety protocols, and coordinated the efforts of emergency responders. Outreach to the business community included two business forums, in June and September, to provide guidance and support in operating safely.
The township made public communication a high priority, providing frequent updates and resources through ebulletins, text messages, videos, public meetings, hotlines, and The Montgomery News. A Business Task Force was established to support local businesses in dealing with the crisis, helping to secure protective equipment early on, providing timely updates, and informing the public of which businesses were open and closed.
Individual residents, community groups, and businesses responded in remarkable ways. The Montgomery Food Pantry received over $55,000 in donations of cash, food, and grocery gift cards, which supported over 50 families in need. Many civic, youth, and neighborhood goods organized fundraisers and food drives. The pandemic did not deter a “community build day” in December as volunteers put their carpentry skills to good use at the first Habitat for Humanity home in Montgomery Township.
Residents enthusiastically participated in a myriad of virtual and socially distanced activities organized by the Recreation Department, schools, and civic and religious groups. These activities helped maintain social connections and a sense of community at a most difficult time. Many of these activities were promoted on a new township website, Montgomery Together, launched to help people stay connected.
This outreach efforts yielded dividends as the Health Department experienced nearly 90% cooperation from residents as they telephoned people who tested positive or were exposed to a COVID-positive person. That was roughly double the cooperation rate elsewhere in New Jersey and a key reason why during the first six months of the pandemic Montgomery had fewer cases per 1,000 residents than any of our peer communities. By participating in contact tracing, residents learned how to avoid further transmission in their families and workplaces.
2. – Inclusivity and Anti-Racism Initiatives
Montgomery Township has been addressing racism and injustice through several proactive efforts, including the Montgomery Mosaic discussion group and the One Montgomery ad-hoc committee. These groups provided opportunities for dialog between diverse groups of residents and Montgomery township leaders, including police.
In February, those organizations hosted a presentation and workshop by Montgomery resident Dr. Sandra Donnay, “Why humans engage in racism, sexism, religious hatred, and xenophobia.” Topics addressed included how to build a more inclusive and resilient community. Participants were given tools to combat prejudice and discrimination based on common stereotypes.
That early groundwork helped the township and residents respond more quickly and effectively after the death of George Floyd and throughout the summer of Black Lives Matter protests around the nation and locally. Montgomery residents participated in virtual and in-person gatherings on combatting racism and on June 4th the Township Committee passed a resolution against racist violence, hosted a “Montgomery Speaks Out Against Racism virtual event, celebrated the Township’s first-ever Juneteenth Freedom Day event, and declared racism a public health crisis.
On July 25, an all-day virtual workshop on combatting racism was held, followed by a September 30 Monty for Justice virtual event with leaders of the Montgomery Police Department. In the fall, the Township hosted virtual education events on local African American and Native American history.
The year concluded with the Township Committee adopting a new ordinance to establish a standing Inclusion and Equity Committee of seven people whose duty will be to promote “community endeavors to eliminate bias, intolerance, and discrimination in the Township of Montgomery and to promote equal opportunity in social, employment, and recreational realms.” In addition, “the committee shall develop and recommend plans, initiatives and programs that encourage constructive dialogue within the Township about diversity, as well as initiate community-building strategies that enhance and sustain respect among different groups and people within the Township.” The new committee was to be appointed and commence its work in January 2021.
3. – New Montgomery Township Municipal Center and Library
In a historic step for Montgomery Township, 2020 saw the start of construction for a new Montgomery Township Municipal Center, including a new library, near the intersection of Route 206 and Orchard Road. A groundbreaking ceremony in October was attended by officials from Somerset County as well as Montgomery municipal leaders, past and present. Montgomery High School students Grace Johnson and Jordan Spector, leaders of the local Youth Leadership Council, served as the masters of ceremony.
The groundbreaking followed public input and revisions to the original plan, as well as the securing of $5.375 million in state funding. Somerset County assisted in providing financing and in working with the Township Committee to negotiate a seamless transition from the Mary Jacobs Library in Rocky Hill.
In addition to the library, the new facility will include space for the Montgomery Township Police Department and all other administrative offices, such as Township Clerk, Tax Collection, Planning and Zoning, and the Township Administrator. The library and atrium have been designed as a place for residents to gather with each other.
4. – Government Transparency & Responsiveness in a Virtual Era
Just weeks before the onset of the pandemic, a resident-driven Communications Ad Hoc Committee made a report to the Township Committee recommending improvements in transparency and responsiveness after a year of research and study.
The pandemic created a new urgency for frequent communication between the township and residents. Starting in mid-March, the township began sending daily ebulletins via email to inform residents of new COVID cases and deaths, as well as guidance for keeping safe. Those ebulletins transitioned to three per week by mid-summer.
The township also launched a new website, Montgomery Together, to help residents stay connected with access to virtual events, videos, community resources, and more. Recreation Department programs largely transitioned to virtual experiences as well, such as RecnCrew Camp, Montgomery Around the World Virtual Travel, and Build-Your-Own Rain Barrel Remote Instruction. Holiday commemorations were also held virtually, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day.
The pandemic forced the township to migrate public meetings from in-person to virtual, including Township Committee, Planning Board, and Zoning Board. Using the Zoom platform, public access and comment capabilities were retained.
Late in the year, Montgomery launched a new system, called GovPilot, to improves the efficiency of responses to public concerns, questions, and requests. The system can be used for alarm registration, construction permits, pet licenses, fire permits, flu clinic scheduling, and reporting concerns of all kinds.
Montgomery resident achieved an important milestone in 2020: More than 8 in 10 (81.9%) completed and submitted the self-administered US Census form, and improvement over a decade ago (79.4%). In so doing, they helped ensure our local area will receive Federal resources and representation in Washington for the coming decade.
5. – Open Space, Parks, and Environment
The year 2020 saw continued progress for Montgomery’s open space program. The historic Raymond family farm, almost 20 acres off Dutchtown-Harlingen Road, was permanently preserved through an easement purchased with dedicated open space funds.
The township also completed a new pathway at Bessie Grover Park on the Sourland Mountain and started a new pathway along Skillman Road and Burnt Hill Road, helping to improve pedestrian and bicycle connections among township schools.
2020 ended with a nice bit of news: Montgomery Township Environmental Commission won a Somerset County Planning Board Land Development Award. The award was prompted by a study of Montgomery Township’s national Natural Resource Inventory (NRI) that examined the security of township environmental resources including agriculture, air quality, climate, geology, habitat, land use/land cover, soil, steep slopes and topography, surface water, watersheds, flood zones and wetlands.
The Montgomery Environmental Commission was also presented with a 2020 Environmental Achievement Award for the same NRI Project by the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC) at their 47th Annual Environmental Congress, held virtually in October.
6. – Infrastructure and Planning Successes
Montgomery Township continued progress on major infrastructure projects, particularly related to storm water management. The township strengthened its stormwater ordinance in response to changes in New Jersey regulations to reduce stormwater runoff from commercial properties, an important contributor to flooding and water pollution. “Major developments” must now include green infrastructure in their plans, such as green roofs, swales, bioretention basins, and rain gardens. The definition of major developments was expanded, as well.
The Township Committee also adopted an ordinance to upgrade the township’s Stage II Wastewater Treatment Plant located on River Road, south of Rocky Hill. The project is designed to replace aging equipment and provide flood protection at a location susceptible to Millstone River flooding. The plant has been compromised during major storms such as hurricanes Floyd (1999), Irene (2011), and Sandy (2012). At an estimated cost of $11.5 million, financed though low-interest loans, the project includes a new flood wall designed to withstand a 500-year flood event.
More than a decade of effort by Montgomery officials culminated in a “quiet zone’ for the Hollow Road train crossing. Trains no longer blow loud whistles as they approach the Hollow Road crossing because the intersection has been upgraded with barriers, warning sounds and warning lights.
The Landmarks Commission added three homes and a former church to the Montgomery Township’s List of Designated Local Historic Sites, providing permanent protection.
Township Engineer Gail Smith and Montgomery resident/Princeton Engineer Deana Stockton were honored in 2020 by the Mercer County Society of Civil Engineers for the 2019 Cherry Valley Road Improvement project involving both municipalities due to the road being serving as a municipal and county boundary line.
During 2020, the Montgomery Township Department of Public Works resurfaced sections of six roads for a total of 2 miles of municipal roadway. The Engineering Department’s capital roadway projects included completion of the Blue Spring Road improvements including road paving, bicycle lanes, pedestrian safety; Skillman Road paving and construction of a new 6-foot-wide pedestrian multi-use pathway; and commencement of ADA curb ramp retrofitting, sidewalk repairs, and paving on Black Horse Run, Carriage Trail, Cheston Court, Red Oak Way, and Wiggins Lane. Somerset County completed the replacement of the Route 601 Bridge over Back Brook and upgraded the Route 601 Bridge over Beden’s Brook. The State finally completed the bridge replacement work right outside the current municipal building.