The state legislature is considering a law that could have significant impact on the future of undeveloped land in the heart of the Princeton Route 1 corridor.
The law would exempt private colleges in New Jersey from having to appear before local planning and zoning boards for projects they want to develop on school-owned land.
If approved, it would apply to hundreds of acres of land owned by Princeton University in Princeton Borough, Princeton Township, Plainsboro, South Brunswick, and West Windsor.
Currently, only public institutions are exempt from the planning process. Opponents fear that the law, which was approved by the senate in June and is expected to be considered by the assembly later this year, could open the door to developments that are higher density or at variance with towns’ zoning regulations.
The legislation is opposed by the state League of Municipalities, most municipal officials, and the American Planning Association.
Peter Cantu — Plainsboro mayor and past president of the state League of Municipalities — is urging the assembly to reject the law. Cantu points out in a letter to U.S. 1 (see page 2) that the university owns some 685 acres of land in Plainsboro — about half of which is available for development.
He argues that although a portion of the university’s land was developed for education activities, “the vast majority has been developed for profit to the financial benefit of the university.”
“Some of these lands include the Princeton Forrestal Center and the Princeton Forrestal Village,” Cantu says. “This development has been a success (and an asset to Plainsboro) largely because the local planning process has insured that the land was developed consistent with the township’s carefully considered master plan.”
Cantu says, “the fractured logic behind this legislation is that private institutions should be treated as public institutions because they also ‘contribute substantially to that important public mission.’ But the primary danger in extending this exemption is that private colleges and universities are also private developers.”
The state League of Municipalities calls the law “bad public policy.”
“This legislation undermines and usurps local decision making and severely diminishes the role of our taxpayers,” the league says in a letter urging mayors to oppose the bill. “Public scrutiny, involvement and complete transparency are essential to the planning process, and should not be diminished or hindered in any way. The involvement of locally elected officials, appointed officials, and residents can only improve, not diminish, projects.
In West Windsor, Princeton University holds close to 500 acres on both sides of Route 1, including an 80-acre tract at the front of the Sarnoff property, according to Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh.
“My personal position is that I am opposed to the legislation,” says Hsueh, pointing out that township council has also passed a resolution lobbying against the law. “We need to have zoning authority to ensure that what they’re doing is consistent with what the township has planned for the long term and the short term.”
He says that passage of the measure could create the potential at private colleges for such highly contested projects as Mercer County College’s 45-acre solar field, which the college is building near a residential neighborhood on its Old Trenton Road campus without a planning review and over the objections of West Windsor residents and officials.
“We have already had problems dealing with public institutions,” says Hsueh referring to the solar field project. “We had no opportunity to hold a review of that project and it’s important for us to have some say in the process. If not, they can just ignore township in terms of our regulations.”
Meanwhile, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman is supporting the law — Tilghman rejected a request earlier this month by Princeton Borough to oppose the legislation. In a letter to town officials, she said, “The purpose of this proposed legislation is to achieve parity by applying the same policies to independent colleges and universities as are currently applied to their public counterparts.”
As an example supporting the need for the law, Tilghman pointed to difficulties in the process of getting approval for the university’s proposed arts and transit village. “It took more than a year of persistent requests before Borough Council agreed to consider rezoning to permit the development of university lands to address one of the university’s highest priorities and provide multiple benefits to the community and the state.”