Profile: Economic Sustainability is the Key for This NJ State Planner

Colleen O'Dea | August 15, 2019 | Profiles
Donna Rendeiro spent a decade working in different government agencies. She is now executive director of the state Office of Planning Advocacy and secretary of the State Planning Commission

Donna Rendeiro
Who: Donna Rendeiro

Hometown: Monroe Township (Middlesex)

Age: 63

Family: Married, two children

What she does: Executive director of the state Office of Planning Advocacy and secretary of the New Jersey State Planning Commission

The road to planning: Rendeiro studied business in college, earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the Lubin School of Business at Pace University. She went to work for Citibank and spent 23 years in New York City, serving as a branch manager.

She left the private sector in 1999. “The commute got too much,” Rendeiro said. “My children were very young. I was out of the house probably 12 or 15 hours a day … It just got too much.”

She went to work for the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, much closer to home, focusing on economic development, shared services and redevelopment, and has worked on those issues at the county or state levels for the last two decades.

Many hats in state government: During the last decade, Rendeiro has had a number of roles in Trenton through three administrations of both parties. She spent some time as brownfields and special projects policy manager in the Department of Community Affairs. In 2009, she became acting executive director of the Office of Smart Growth, the predecessor of the office she heads now. Just over a year later, she moved to the NJ Redevelopment Authority, where she was the director of community planning. In 2011 she joined the NJ Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency as chief of administration, a post she held until assuming her new duties as head of planning advocacy and secretary of the State Planning Commission.

It was her work in different state agencies that taught Rendeiro the lessons that will be guiding her work as head state planner.

“This is where I really learned the importance of land use, where I learned the nexus between land use and economic sustainability,” she said. “I don’t say economic development. I say economic sustainability, because you can create jobs, but you need to maintain those jobs in the city in order to have long-term economic growth.”

Current duties: One function of the Office of Planning Advocacy is to staff the New Jersey State Planning Commission and the New Jersey Brownfields Redevelopment Task Force. The SPC is responsible for the State Development and Redevelopment Plan, an effort to coordinate land-use planning and cooperation among local governments and state agencies.

That effort has had some successes over the years but has not achieved full buy-in from some municipal officials, or even from all state agencies. That’s one area Rendeiro wants to improve.

“I want to expand the universe of state agency partners that have not previously been involved in the process,” she said. “I think that’s very important.”

Important goals: The Office of Planning Advocacy currently is dealing with 98 municipalities concerning either the expiration or extension of their town-center designations, under the State Planning Act. Designated town centers are compact areas meant to be developed or redeveloped; Towns have to seek the designation and meet certain criteria to get approval. The State Plan’s strategy is to promote and accommodate growth in centers, rather than continue to sprawl across farms, woodlands and other remaining open spaces.

“The first, most immediate goal is to get as many centers as desire extended by June,” Rendeiro said. “It’s a long process. So there’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of … behind the scenes work that has to get done… So that’s really the first goal.”

Her other goals include working with partner state agencies to “make the endorsement process more efficient more, cost effective, basically more valuable for them.”

Rendeiro said she also hopes to “participate in and contribute to” the state’s overall strategic planning, because land-use planning is integral to that.

Another critical goal is to advocate for and educate people about good planning.

“Probably the most important, longest-term goal is to advocate and promote and educate on the topics of widespread land use planning,” she said. “It is important for the future of New Jersey. A good land use decision or a bad land decision can impact the state for many, many years to come. I don’t know if there is a strong enough appreciation about how long term land use decisions can impact the state … So I want to be out there talking about why it’s important.”

Why good planning is important: New Jersey does not have much open space and wants to keep as much of it green as possible, while at the same time encouraging additional development to keep the state’s economy growing and provide enough places for people to live. Doing both of those at the same time is not easy.

“In the densest state in the country, we need to provide thoughtful and appropriate guidance that revitalizes our urban communities while maintaining and preserving the beauty of New Jersey’s natural environment,” Rendeiro said.

So it’s possible to get excited about a topic like planning? The answer definitely is “yes” for Rendeiro. “I’ve gotten very excited about land use planning,” she said. “I think, yes, it’s something that for some people was a big black hole and it could be a snooze … By and large, it’s because people don’t understand it and don’t understand how it can help their economy, both local and regional.”

That’s why Rendeiro views her role in educating the public about the State Plan to be especially critical.

“One of the goals of education is to try to have them understand why it’s important for them, to at least understand it,” she said, referring to local officials, “and perhaps to follow it.”