Open space preservation. A low crime rate. A quality school system. And a stable tax rate. These factors have led Plainsboro to be ranked 7th out of 566 towns in the state by New Jersey Monthly magazine. West Windsor was listed at 176.
The ranking is the latest in a pile of accolades heaped on both towns, where education and quality of life issues garner the most public discourse.
The controversial rankings, released this month by New Jersey Monthly, were compiled by researchers at Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, which considered eight categories: population growth, home values, property taxes, land development, employment, crime rate, school performance, and proximity to services.
Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu said he thinks the rankings reflect the quality of his community.
Cantu pointed to the township’s comprehensive plan over the past 25 years to deal with growth. Despite being the fastest-growing town in central New Jersey, it is “now being recognized as a community where we have growth under control.”
He also cited the downtown area, where Village Center has developed into a vibrant community around the soon-to-open new library. Cantu also vaunted the township’s good financial management and tax control.
The one area that confused Plainsboro officials, however, was the data listed for open space. According to Plainsboro, more than 50 percent of the land in the township has been preserved, much higher than the 12 percent listed by New Jersey Monthly.
“I asked our planning director to take a look at that,” said Cantu. “We have over 50 percent of the community preserved. Whatever statistical base they looked at is not reflecting that.”
“We like to think that maybe if they had reflected the 50 percent preservation, we would have been number one,” Cantu added.
Other data the Monmonth research team considered was population growth since the last census in 2008; the three-year change in median home prices, with most recent data coming from 2009; the median property tax bill in 2009, combined with the change in median taxes over the past two years; percentage of land preserved as open space as of 2009; the unemployment rate; the total crime rate; student proficiency on state-mandated standardized tests for students in grades 4,8, and 11; and the number of acute-care hospitals within 10 miles.
Researchers did not consider household income, and home values were measured by the rate of increase or decrease over three years rather than by current prices. To compare land development, towns with relatively slower growth and more open space were rated more favorably. Towns with lower unemployment and crime rates also scored higher, as did those close to more hospitals.
Overall, Plainsboro jumped from its previous rank of 64 to 7. Specifically, Plainsboro saw population growth of 4.6 percent from 2000 to 2008, to 21,148 people. The median home sales price was listed as $315,000, an increase of 8 percent since 2006, the data showed. The median property tax bill was $7,868, a 1.9 percent increase. Open space was listed at 12 percent, and the jobless rate in 2008 was 2.7 percent. The crime rate was 8.4 per 1,000 people, and there are four hospitals within 10 miles of Plainsboro.
In addition to the New Jersey Monthly list, Plainsboro’s proximity to the many cultural and leisurely activities associated with Princeton, as well as the large business and research hubs that have made their home in the township helped it land in Fortune Small Business Magazine’s Top 100 Places to Live and Launch, released last year. Plainsboro came in at number 52 in the nation, and the article listed good transportation infrastructure and great schools as positive attributes in its selection. The article also listed the Forrestal Campus and strong manufacturing and retail sectors.
Plainsboro was also given a Smart Growth award from New Jersey Futures for its new town center in 2008. “We think it reflects the efforts we put into community planning over the years, and we’re pleased it’s been recognized,” said Cantu of the variety of recognition.
Meanwhile, West Windsor did its own rank-jumping — from 285 to 176. The town had a population growth of 21 percent from 2000 to 2008 to 26,507 in 2008. The median home sales price in 2009 was $507,500, a 4 percent decrease since 2006.
Meanwhile, data showed a 6.1 percent increase in the change in median property tax, with a median property tax bill in 2009 of $11,926. As for open space, 27 percent was reported as of 2009. The jobless rate in 2008 was at 2.8 percent in 2008, while the crime rate was at 20.4 per 1,000 people. There were five hospitals in close proximity to the township, the data showed.
West Windsor ranked behind Princeton Township (43) but ahead of Princeton Borough (354).
West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh said he was taking the New Jersey Monthly for what it was: simply a ranking by yet another organization. What really mattered, he said, was what residents think of the township. “Every time you talk about ranking from different organization, they have different criteria.”
For example, West Windsor was recognized last year by NeighborhoodScout, which specializes in nationwide relocation selection and real estate investment advising for employees, families, and businesses. It released its list of top family-friendly neighborhoods in the state last year, and West Windsor was named both the top town in New Jersey — and in the nation.
That report stated that families looking to provide their children with a safe environment while receiving a top-notch education could not find a better place to reside than in West Windsor. According to its figures, the township is safer than 97 percent of neighborhoods in America. Families with school-aged children are the prevailing family type here, and the school district is top-notch.
Still, “the numbers are under-ranked from our perspective,” Hsueh said of the New Jersey Monthly rating, although he acknowledged “there is still room for improvement.”
“We’re one of a few towns in the whole nation with a AAA bond rating, and we have state-of-the-art facilities. We share the same school district as Plainsboro. We have a train station.”
But, like in Plainsboro, Hsueh said he and his staff believe the data used for the study was “antiquated.”
“In West Windsor, we probably have about 50 percent of the land preserved,” said Hsueh. “Where they got all of this information, I have no idea.”
When asked if he thought the lack of a downtown area and a redevelopment project at the train station had any bearings on the rankings, Hsueh acknowledged that could have been a factor.
He did say, though, that “the fact that Plainsboro is number seven is a good thing for the whole region. That means the whole region is a good area to live.”
— Cara Latham