Bill would overhaul town-gown interaction, make Princeton comparable to public universities
The University may no longer need to earn the approval of the Borough and Township when it seeks to expand the campus if a bill making its way through the New Jersey state legislature passes. Senate Bill 1534 would eliminate the requirement that local governments in New Jersey sign off on the expansion and zoning plans of private nonprofit schools like Princeton, potentially reshaping town-gown battles like the long struggle over the University’s controversial Arts and Transit Neighborhood.
A lawsuit in 1972 held public universities to a different standard: Public universities in New Jersey do not fall under the jurisdiction of local zoning boards because of their “vital public mission,” according to the language of the Senate bill. Though public universities are required to consult with local authorities to understand community interests and concerns, these discussions are nonbinding, and public universities can do as they choose.
The bill working its way through Trenton aims to extend this to private universities as well. “In public institutions, the right of developing properties is a given,” State Senator Robert Singer, a primary sponsor of the bill, explained. As long as the private institution consults the local community for concerns, questions and feedback, and its plans abide by state laws, it would be allowed to follow through with its plans.
But “[private institutions] have been held captive,” Singer said. Because they are subject to regulation by local authorities, conflicts of interest and opinion can lead to expensive lawsuits for universities. “It costs universities tens of thousands of dollars to go to court ... [and] for no reason," he added. “It delays projects, and it’s just unfair.”
The University’s Arts and Transit Neighborhood, an impending development of the western edge of campus which will expand the University’s arts facilities and move the Dinky 460 feet further south, has been the source of town-gown tension for many years. After six years of contention between the University and local zoning boards, the University finally received the right to build the $300-million development.
If the Senate bill passed years ago, the University would not have needed approval from the zoning boards.
The University supports the bill, according to University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, though he said that almost all aspects of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood had from the outset already met the zoning laws.
“The only thing zoning didn’t allow was construction for the arts [buildings],” he said. “In retrospect it should not have taken as many years as it did to get approval [to include the arts buildings].”
Singer noted that Monmouth University, a private school in West Long Branch, N.J., had hoped to construct a 196-bed dormitory residence hall in a residential area as well as to expand several facilities. The school hoped to bring freshmen and sophomores currently living off campus back to campus— due to lack of space, Monmouth housed some students in nearby motels.
Though the zoning board had approved the plans in August 2005, the West Long Branch Coalition of Neighbors, a group of residents, filed a lawsuit against the Zoning Board and the university the following year, though they ultimately lost. The group petitioned the state Supreme Court to overturn the Zoning Board decision; the petition was rejected. Only then did the neighborhood group accept the result.
Incidents of delay and extended conflict like that seen in West Long Branch, Singer said, are “repeated time and time again for the state of New Jersey.”
Durkee also mentioned that while a typical developer that is denied approval to expand by a zoning board may choose to move their project elsewhere, colleges do not have that option.
“Universities are embedded in the community. They don’t have the option of developing somewhere else,” he said.
Despite the disadvantages faced by private nonprofit universities, some oppose the bill for the special status it would give to educational institutions.
On Tuesday, the Borough Council unanimously passed a formal resolution opposing the Senate bill and its companion Assembly bill. Because she is a lecturer at the University, Councilwoman Heather Howard abstained from voting.
“[Private nonprofit universities] should be subject to the same regulations that every other property owner is subject to,” Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes ’83 explained. “There should be no exemption just because they’re private, and they should be reviewed by the municipality.” And as to the current exemption for public institutions, he said that he thought it was a “terrible idea.”
“It’s related to the issue of inequality,” he said. “Why should one class of citizenry in America have one set of rules and another class of citizenry be exempt from the set of rules?,” he said, comparing other groups that appear before the Zoning Board to the University.
But regardless of the bill, Durkee argued that the University would have pursued the Arts and Transit Neighborhood similarly under any circumstances.
“One of [our five principal] goals was to address community priorities at the same time that we were trying to develop that area to address one of the University’s priorities,” Durkee said. “The University is an important part of the community. Whether we needed zoning approval or not we want the community to participate in the arts programs ... [and] patronize the restaurants that are going to be there,” he explained.
“I think the existing [zoning] process has created tensions over the past couple of years,” Durkee added. “I think that’s unfortunate.”