Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 35
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
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Age Restriction Talks for Bunn Drive Housing Renew Conservation Aims

Matthew Hersh

Any talk of developing open tracts of land on a northern section of Princeton Township known as the Princeton Ridge is sure to be followed by questions about what impact development will have on the environment. But when a local architect and developer approached Township Committee with a new vision of age-restricted housing along the Ridge earlier this month, the question was whether anything, let alone senior housing, should be built in that area.

In April, the Princeton Environmental Commission issued a memorandum to Princeton Township Committee asking the governing body to revoke current zoning that allows for age-restricted housing. With various housing development projects having stalled in the past years, Commission members are hoping that the renewed request for housing will also revive a sentiment that environmentalists have repeatedly expressed concerning that area: don't build. Period.

Princeton Township has two open tracts of land that fall in the Residential Community Overlay zoning district — a zone that currently allows for higher density housing marketed for residents aged 62 and over. One area, a 30-acre expanse off Mount Lucas Road, north of Redding Circle, is slated to be the home of a 49-unit development that received approval in May.

The other area, a 20-acre tract west of Bunn Drive, just south of Hilltop Park, had been the site of a planned, and approved, 140-unit project by national developer K. Hovnanian. In 2006, however, just months after the project received approval, the developer backed out, citing market issues related to age-restricted housing.

But when J. Robert Hillier, a Princeton architect and shareholder at Town Topics Inc., pitched an idea to Township Committee that envisioned developing on the former Hovnanian site, he also asked that the Township consider relaxing the zoning there to allow for 55-and-up housing, thus opening the market and at the same time paving the way for the senior housing that the Township has made a priority since establishing the senior housing zoning district in 2001.

While not taking a formal vote, Township officials seemed warm to the idea of relaxing the zoning on that site and are expected to revisit Mr. Hillier's plan sometime this fall. But in the meantime, Mr. Hillier's proposal has given the Environmental Commission an opportunity to affirm its original commitment to conserving what environmentalists consider vulnerable land.

The Hillier proposal's lowering of the age mandate to 55 could be perceived as a more general market housing development since a general interpretation of the federal 55-and-up housing law requires that only one resident be 55, whereas 62-and-up housing requires that all residents be over the minimum allowed age. "Mr. Hillier is saying that the 62-plus age market is not a financially attractive investment," said Grace Sinden, a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission. "This directly contradicts the basic premise for creating the controversial overlay zone in an inappropriate location."

Building on the site "is hardly worth the destruction of an important ecological site," Ms. Sinden said, pointing to the property's proximity to the adjacent 85-foot-wide gas line easement, as well as concerns related to increased flooding in surrounding areas.

However, even without the senior housing overlay zone, Township officials in favor of developing along the Ridge have said that those areas are already zoned for development, albeit not residential housing. Even stripped of the overlay, the Bunn property, which is owned by Chatham Capital Investors of Short Hills, would still be available for office and research-related development.

Laura Lowe, a principal with Chatham Capital Investors, said that the Township needs senior housing, and that she would continue to try to find a developer suitable for that property. The Lowes have owned the property for nearly 30 years. They approached Mr. Hillier earlier this year as a possible developer for that land. In his presentation, Mr. Hillier envisioned developing only a portion of the 20-acre site, reducing the environmental impact, he said.

"I respect the Environmental Commission's concern," Ms. Lowe told Town Topics in May. "This development is needed, and environmentally, we're looking to take great care in building on this property. We want to preserve as much as possible, but that area is very suitable for senior housing," Ms. Lowe said.

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