Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 49
 
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
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Township Tables Senior Housing Code

Matthew Hersh

While Princeton Township’s governing body and residents appear to be in agreement over an apparent need for market-rate senior housing somewhere within the municipal border, deep divisions remain over where that housing should be located, and a debate over senior housing Monday night will continue into the new year.

Township Committee, by the narrowest of margins, voted to table a zoning code proposal that would effectively have put into motion a plan for 158, age 55-and-up, housing units along a 17-acre parcel on Bunn Drive, located on the northeastern segment of the Princeton Ridge. While the vote does not sound the death knell for yet another attempt to increase the senior housing stock in the Township, it does spell another setback for senior housing advocates and is a tepid victory for environmentalists, what is considered environmentally sensitive terrain remains undeveloped for another day.

The 3-2 vote to table the proposed ordinance, whose signature component was a reduction in age minimum from the existing 62 years to 55 years, means that Township Committee will likely revisit the ordinance at a January meeting, whose date has yet to be determined.

Concerns over affordable housing requirements, along with the development potential of an adjacent three-acre tract of land, represented the major stumbling blocks for Committee Monday night, with the five-member committee voting to spend more time on the ordinance, first introduced last month.

The zoning proposal stemmed from an August presentation to Township Committee by architect J. Robert Hillier, who argued that lowering the age minimum to 55 years would be more cost effective to a prospective developer, and would bring Princeton Township closer to the long-standing goal of the Township increasing its senior housing stock. In 2006, national developer K. Hovnanian backed out of a municipally approved plan to build 140, age 62-and-over, units on the Bunn Drive site, but backed away,][ citing changes in the housing market.

The owners of that land, William and Laura Lowe, principals of the Short Hills-based Chatham Capital Investors, LLC, then sought out Mr. Hillier as a potential developer and architect. Mr. Hillier, a shareholder of Town Topics Inc., then approached Committee, urging the municipality to alter the existing senior housing overlay zone. Established in 2001, it encompasses an existing zone for office and research use.

Mr. Hillier began working with municipal planner Lee Solow and Township -attorney Edwin Schmierer in crafting a new ordinance earlier this fall. Following two contentious public hearings, Committee considered changes to the overlay zone that would not only reduce the age requirement to 55 years, but would require at least 60 percent common open space on the tract, with eight-and-a-half acres remaining undisturbed; that all buildings be rated “silver” according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership; and that a so-called Princeton preference would be employed, giving people who have lived in Princeton in the last five years, and those living within a three-mile radius of Princeton, priority when it comes to available units.

The proposed code also requires that 24 of the proposed 146 units be marketed to middle income households earning no more than $131,200 —200 percent of the median income of $65,600.

And while Committee members were receptive to changes in the proposed ordinance, some remained concerned that the affordable housing component, which would mandate a 20 percent set aside, or 12 moderate-income, one-bedroom affordable units, allowed for a nearby three-acre parcel, also owned by the Lowes, to be donated to the Township for affordable housing, which Mr. Hillier said he would design and engineer, but not develop.

Members of Committee, however, balked at the ordinance detail that the affordable housing units, which would bring the development up to 158 units, would be excluded from the gross density calculation. Permitted gross density in the zone, the Residential Senior Community-2, is currently seven units per acre, with no single development allowing more than 150 units.

“This project is significantly better than the Hovnanian project, and we need to find senior housing within the community, but the affordable housing component needs changes because it adds density to the property,” said Committeeman Chad Goerner, questioning the full developmental capacity of the three-acre tract, which is about two-thirds wetlands, he said.

Mr. Goerner suggested a density reduction to the main site, so the three-acre parcel would not have to be developed. “We shouldn’t accept the three-acre parcel in light of affordable housing requirements.”

Mr. Hillier pointed to the concessions made and specifically referenced an approved, 49-unit, age 62-and-over, housing development slated to be built off Mt. Lucas Road. “Those are 3,000-square-foot townhouses, and I’m talking about 12- to 1,600-square-foot units.

“I don’t think there’s anything more that I can do,” Mr. Hillier said. Mr. Goerner refuted that statement saying: “I will never listen to a developer say that they did all they could do,” adding that “we are very, very close” to a resolution.

“We need to be reasonable about this —I’m not saying that we don’t need to have this project, but we need to be reasonable.”

Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand and Committeewoman Vicky Bergman voted against tabling the ordinance, with Deputy Mayor Bernie Miller, Committeeman Lance Liverman, and Mr. Goerner voting in favor of reviewing the proposal in January.

———

Significant public feedback was heard both for and against the Hillier plan, but of particular note was an 11-page memorandum of law filed by Township resident Daniel Harris on behalf of the Campaign to Save Princeton Ridge. The campaign retained attorney William Potter, a land use lawyer, calling the zoning proposal a “classic example of spot zoning,” and criticized an “exceptionally close collaboration between the developer, Mr. Hillier, and Township Committee in the crafting of the ordinance.”

Township attorney Ed Schmierer refuted the spot-zoning charge, saying that the area was already zoned for residential development. “This is not new zoning we’re putting here. To think that there’s a spot zoning issue here, to me, is ludicrous.”

Jim Waltman, executive director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, renewed calls for preserving the land as open space, and presented Committee with a letter from Michele Byers Stiles, director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, outlining an interest in preserving that part of the Ridge, adding that the NJCF “has begun to explore funding opportunities” for preservation. Ms. Byers Stiles confirmed Monday in an e-mail message that she had met with both Mr. Hillier and the Lowes.

Because Township Committee tabled the zoning ordinance, a review scheduled for this Thursday by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton has been postponed until after the Township introduces an amended code.

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