As a plan to build 96 age-restricted housing units east of Bunn Drive in Princeton Township was deliberated by Township zoners last Wednesday, Princeton once again was confronted with the fundamental issue behind these hearings: Does Princeton's need for senior housing outweigh environmental concerns?
The proposal, which outlines a plan by developer Regal Homes to build its Morgan Estates brand of housing, has faced steady, escalating opposition since first being heard by the Zoning Board a year ago, with Township zoners questioning whether the land is suitable for condominium-style housing, and debating the merits of issuing a major variance in the existing zoning code.
Meanwhile, litigation from corporate and residential neighbors is looming.
The Township has spent years trying to approve housing for seniors along the Princeton Ridge in zoning overlays that environmentalists see as unsuitable for development. Those opposed, including the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, cite rocky soils, storm water runoff, overall ecological sensitivity, and wildlife indigenous to the area among reasons for holding the line on development. The two lots on which Regal Homes has proposed to build fall outside of the aforementioned overlay, and would be marketed to residents aged 55 and up, rather than 62 and up. Nonetheless, senior housing advocates had their say last week during the first public hearing and latest attempt to provide market rate housing for Princeton's seniors.
"We're dealing with two different values: a site problem versus a need for senior housing. We seniors contribute actively among the community, our presence in Princeton benefits many who live here, and that importance has been neglected over these proceedings," said Water Emmerich, a Township resident who has long advocated senior housing. "Senior apartments are a way to downsize and stay within the community."
"Princeton is very close to becoming a 'golden ghetto'," said Township resident Bill Enslin, a former deputy mayor who, while a member of Township Committee, was an ardent supporter of senior housing and who voted in favor of establishing the senior housing overlay districts in 2001. Those designations, however, "don't even come close" to approaching the growing demand for market rate senior housing in the Township, he said. "Meeting the housing needs of our citizens will serve the public good."
In 2001, after reviewing the Princeton Community Master Plan, Township Committee determined three sites potentially suitable for senior housing: a 30-acre site off Mt. Lucas Road near Redding Circle; a 20-acre site opposite the proposed Morgan site on the western side of Bunn; and a 20-acre site near the northern end of Mt. Lucas Road near Herrontown Road. The last site was eventually eliminated from consideration. Developer K. Hovnanian, who received approval in 2005 to bring its Four Seasons brand of 62-and-up housing to the western Bunn expanse, pulled out late last year, citing a decline in market trends. There is currently an application to build 48 market rate senior units on the 30-acre Mt. Lucas site, and while the Planning Board is likely to begin considering that development this year, environmental concerns are sure to accompany any deliberation.
In the late 1990s, a proposal to build Regents Mead, a continued care retirement community at the former Our Lady of Princeton site near Great Road and Drakes Corner Road was denied by the Princeton Regional Planning Board, eventually making way for the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart. Other Township developers, including Pulte Homes' Fieldwood Manor, had opted for non age-restricted housing on their lands, rather than make a foray into the Township's senior housing market.
And concerns about potential environmental impact could permanently stymie any current efforts to build on the Ridge.
Lincoln Hollister, a Princeton University geologist and a Township resident, said the rock composition of the area "is very impermeable to water," and that the time has come for the Township to identify new areas for senior housing.
"There's no storage for the water, and it simply runs off. It's a rock type that is very difficult to excavate and it's a tragedy that the Township Committee has diverted the attention of the seniors by making them think that they can put senior housing in a place where it just can't go," he said, declaring, "we have wasted a decade, at least, to put senior housing in a place where the shoe just doesn't fit."
The Princeton Township Zoning Board of Adjustment is scheduled to hold another hearing on the Morgan Estates development on Wednesday, February 28, at 7:30 p.m., at Township Hall.
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