A bill moving through the state legislature in Trenton may alter the relationship between private colleges and universities and local governments in New Jersey. In late June the State Senate passed a bill that would allow institutions like Princeton to pursue expansion and development without the approval of local government. The bill will take effect if it is passed by the House and receives the signature of Governor Chris Christie.
Currently, public colleges and universities are already allowed to pursue their development plans without local government approval as a result of a 1972 lawsuit that ruled that public universities in New Jersey do not fall under the jurisdiction of local zoning boards.
Although public universities are currently required to consult with their local municipality authorities in order to understand community concerns, these discussions are nonbinding, and public universities can proceed with development regardless of whether they receive approval from the municipality.
This bill would give Princeton and other private colleges and universities the same standing that public institutions in New Jersey currently enjoy — potentially making future land expansion processes smoother in the future.
The University encountered significant opposition from local government to its plans to construct an Arts and Transit Neighborhood on Alexander Road. Under this bill, the University would have had to seek less approval from the municipality.
University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69 said the University has a “nuanced position” on this bill. Nevertheless, the University supports the bill and Durkee said the bill would “streamline” the expansion process.
“There have been attempts by the Borough government to exert political control in our plans,” Durkee said “[The bill] would reduce the costs of going ahead with some projects. And it would avoid the really unfortunate jam that affected the Arts and Transit Neighborhood project.”
Princeton Borough and Princeton Township have both adopted resolutions against this bill. Three days before the State Assembly received the bill, the Borough posted a link on its website to a Change.org petition titled “Oppose New Jersey Assembly Bill No. 2586 (S-1534),” which was sponsored by the American Planning Association’s New Jersey chapter. As of Sunday afternoon, the petition had received 900 online signatures.
Borough Mayor Yina Moore ’79 said in an interview that she opposes the bill.
“It erodes the role of the municipality in protecting the resources managing the assets of the town in service to all the citizens of the municipality,” Moore said. “It unfairly burdens the municipality.”
On Sept. 12, Moore sent a letter to University President Shirley Tilghman’s office on behalf of the Borough of Princeton, requesting that the University oppose the bill. In this letter, Moore writes, “With the passage of Assembly Bill No. 2586, there would be more at stake than merely the time and expense of Princeton University to obtain planning or zoning board approval of development applications ... At stake is the fundamental trust between Borough residents and the institutions of higher learning which affect them.”
Moore wrote that the passage of the bill could imperil the “neighbor-host relationship” between the town and the University.
However, Durkee said he does not think the bill would have as large of an impact on town-gown relations as Moore perceives there will be.
“I don’t think communities have to worry that these institutions will develop in ways that are disadvantageous to the community,” Durkee said. “Even if the bill passed, the institutions would still be required to consult with the community.”
Durkee further noted that the relationship between the town and the University had evolved over more than 250 years and that the town’s well-being is in the University’s interest.
“We have been in this town for over 250 years,” Durkee said "We have a very strong incentive in anything that we do to enhance the vitality and the quality of life of the community not just of the campus. That has always been our motivation and will continue to be our motivation.”
Sponsors of the bills did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/17/31123/