Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 34
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
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Developer Seeks Reversal in Housing Decision

Matthew Hersh

A Township landowner has filed suit against the Princeton Township Zoning Board of Adjustment for denying a proposal earlier this year that sought to build 96 age-restricted houses along a 14-acre expanse to the east of Bunn Drive.

The plaintiff, Ricciardi Family, LLC, had acquired Morgan Estates, LLC, as the contract purchaser of the land in an effort to build a development that would house residents age 55 and over, with 20 of those units being affordable under the state's Council on Affordable Housing guidelines. The Zoning Board denied the proposal in February of this year, ending a 16-month battle between the developer and those in opposition, which included a contingent of residents from nearby Governors Lane and corporate neighbor Church & Dwight.

The property owner, according to municipal documents obtained Monday by Town Topics, seeks the reversal of the board's denial, along with attorney's fees and the cost of the suit, calling the board's denial "arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable."

Morgan Estates had planned to build the 96 units in three, condominium style buildings, with 183 below-ground and surface parking spaces, as well as recreation facilities, and sought zoning variances for floor area ratio, and for an increase on permitted density on one of the lots, Lot 4, at the interior of the site. Lot 4 is located in the Township's R-2 residential zone, and the second area, Lot 2, which faces Bunn Drive, is in the Township's Office Research zone.

The application proved difficult from the outset, posing both environmental and resident challenges along the way, but in the end, the Zoning Board effectively killed the proposal when, after approving the developer's variance requests on Lot 2, it voted down, by a narrow margin, a request for higher building density on Lot 4. In denying the second, more interior portion of the application, board members were swayed by assertions that the density variance sought by the developer on one of the lots would actively, though not explicitly, change the zoning in that area, currently designated for office and research use.

The site is surrounded not only by Governors Lane and Church & Dwight, but also Princeton Community Village, as well as houses on Journey's End Lane, and the All Saints Church, the Italian Sportsman Club, and two office buildings located on Thanet Circle.

At the time of the denial, Ricciardi attorney Frank Petrino said it was likely that the family would seek to appeal the board's decision, claiming that the board "misapplied the law, and they didn't follow the legal precedents.

"They didn't weigh the detriments versus the positives," he said. Mr. Petrino was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

Given that the applicant sought variances for the site, coupled with overall environmental concerns, the Morgan Estates application drew immediate reactions from neighbors and environmentalists alike, including testimony by Township engineer Robert Kiser, who worried about the possible effects related to the topographical features of the site, including bedrock, drainage and storm water runoff, and tree removal.

The Township's storm water management consultant, Joseph Skupien, bolstered those concerns when he said that the Morgan development could have an impact on properties located downstream, namely, the residences at Governors Lane and Journey's End Lane.

The Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association and the Sierra Club spoke out against the application, though former Township elected officials came out in favor of it, saying that the development would have provided the market rate senior housing that the Township has sought for more than a decade. Representatives from Princeton Community Housing also supported the proposal.

The two lots fall immediately outside of the Township's Residential Senior Community overlay zone.

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