The bill would allow private colleges like Princeton to pursue development projects without the approval of local zoning boards. The bill was approved by the State Senate in June and is currently awaiting a hearing before the State Assembly’s Higher Education Committee.
The state’s public universities have had the right to pursue development plans without government approval since 1972. In Rutgers v. Piluso, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Rutgers, as a state institution, was not required to seek approval from its local government to develop its campus.
The current bill has been called a “parity bill” because it would equalize the rights between New Jersey’s private and public universities. But on Wednesday night, some questioned whether this phrase was accurate.
“They call it a parity bill. They think this puts them on even par with the public schools. We think it’s actually quite the opposite. We think it’s a disparity bill,” said Mike Cerra, a senior legislative analyst at the New Jersey League of Municipalities. The League of Municipalities opposes the bill, along with the New Jersey state chapters of the Sierra Club and the American Planning Association.
“If you give institutions a free hand to do whatever they want, they will do things that are short-sighted, narrow and may not be in the best interest” of the community in the long term, Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said.
Under the proposed law, Tittel said, private universities would no longer have to satisfy municipal-level design standards governing requirements such as required setback distances and environmental standards.
Tittel added that private universities, because they are not bound by the state financial requirements that bind public schools, might also pursue projects for their own financial benefit without being required to obtain local approval.
“For many of the private colleges, they can make a lot of money ... by partnering with large-scale developers and building major projects,” Tittel said, citing New York University and the University of Chicago as institutions that had partnered with major developers on lucrative projects. “This legislation, I believe, is really to promote that.”
The University is one of 14 institutions in the state that would be impacted by this bill. The New Jersey Bar Association predicts that, if the bill is passed, other private institutions such as hospitals and private high schools might claim the same exemption from local approval by virtue of having an educational component within their institutional mission.
“The fact that you’re carving out an exemption for private colleges creates a special class of privileged landowners, where they have special rights that other private landowners don’t have,” Borough Assistant Counsel Henry Chou said. Chou is one of the directors of the land section of the New Jersey Bar Association, which has recently adopted a unanimous resolution opposing the bill.
Opponents have speculated that it may give universities the right to construct tax-exempt developments with for-profit purposes, such as office space that could be leased to private clients. Chou explained that any tax-exempt university development would be held to existing standards that require the development to serve an educational mission.
No representatives from the University or any of the community’s other educational institutions — such as Rider University and Princeton Theological Seminary — were present at the public forum. University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, the University’s primary liaison to the local governments, said the University supports the bill.
Borough resident Joe Begetti explained he opposed the bill because it would give power over the town’s future to a non-taxpaying institution.
“They have a plan for this town that many would find soulless,” Begetti said. “I think we have a situation where there is taxation without representation. Taxpayers would have no say concerning the future of their own town.”
The University does make payments in lieu of taxes to the Borough and the Township each year.
Another Borough resident, Heidi Pictamount, shared Begetti’s viewpoint, arguing that the University “gets a freebie” by benefitting from the tax-supported local infrastructure without paying property taxes itself.
“I’m not going to say that these guys are Darth Vader or anything because universities bring a lot of wonderful things to the town as well, but they’re not paying their fair share in Princeton the way it is, as I see it,” she said.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/10/31452/