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Vol. LXIII, No. 30
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
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Environmental Commission Debates Its Role, Leading One Member to Resign

Dilshanie Perera

The Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC) considered its mission and the role it plays in issues of sustainability last Wednesday. Following the discussion, commission member Anne Neumann tendered her resignation from the group.

Beginning the discussion, Ms. Neumann suggested that the PEC continue to have environmental protection be its primary goal, but to “use it as a lens through which we address other factors” like the social, economic, and ecological aspects of sustainability.

She urged a revival of PEC practice from 2005, which led to the creation of Sustainable Princeton, and advocated for informally adding social and economic considerations to the organization’s mission.

PEC member Matthew Wasserman said that “the main lens our body looks through is that of the environment. We all have our own lenses, but the role of the government is to weigh all those perspectives in their decision making.”

Ms. Neumann wondered what the proper relationship between Sustainable Princeton and the Princeton Environmental Commission should be, and Commission member Charles Rojer suggested that “we are a group that makes recommendations, while Sustainable Princeton is like the working arm.”

Vice-chair Peter Wolanin added that each Commission member was personally weighing in the different aspects of sustainability in his or her decision making.

When a vote was called to see if the PEC members present would like to form an advisory body to focus on areas of economic and social sustainability (of the voting members, Chair Wendy Kaczerski and Pamela Machold were absent), Ms. Neumann cast the only vote in favor of it. She subsequently resigned from the group, and sent a formal notice to Mayor Trotman on Monday.

Recreation Director Jack Roberts, who is the PEC liaison from that department, urged Ms. Neumann to reconsider her decision, saying the ideas she brought to the table were important. Of the history of the PEC, Mr. Roberts said that much had been accomplished, and that the organization now “has come light years” in terms of professionalism and dynamism.


He cautioned against the “occasions where we embrace ideology,” saying that a look at the big picture and the consequences of actions in the world are essential, “even though it’s our job to be advocates for the environment.”

Ms. Neumann’s letter to the Editor follows this story.

In other news, the Commission unanimously approved a memo written by member Steve Hiltner responding to a June 24 presentation on the Mountain Lakes Dam rehabilitation project.

In the memo, which was sent to Township Engineer Robert Kiser on Tuesday, Mr. Hiltner offered comments “intended in the spirit of making a highly beneficial project even better.”

Noting that environmental concerns may have been underrepresented in the project, he wrote that “more could be done to integrate ecological goals into the design” of the restoration plan.

The memo suggests ways to preserve and provide fish habitats during dredging, and post-dredging phases, respectively.

Ensuring the preservation of the wetlands below the lower dam at Mountain Lakes was another source of concern. Since wetlands need multiple sources of water to exist, the Commission recommended directing some of the drains in the design toward the wetlands area, as well as rerouting a ditch carrying runoff water.

“Given the high cost and disruption associated with dredging, it would seem important to get as accurate a measurement of current sedimentation rates as possible,” the memo states, urging vigilance about various factors like upstream topography, runoff from impervious surfaces, invasive species, and leaf debris.

To the Editor:

What do environmental commissions do? According to the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, an environmental commission not only advocates for the environment but also represents “the public and its long-term interest”: it is “essentially what each town makes it.”

I believe that the Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC) should indeed consider the public and its interests, recognizing that people are part of our environment just as trees are. PEC members should strive to balance Princeton’s social well-being and its economic prosperity with environmental protection.

With this balance in mind, the PEC could address important new ways of thinking about the environment. Environmental justice, for example, means not putting bad things, like a major through road, where voiceless people live (and then calling it Paul Robeson Place). It means not concentrating good things, like parks for quiet recreation, where vocal people live (why did the Barbara Smoyer Park neighbors object to synthetic turf on playing fields in Smoyer Park but not in Community Park?).

The PEC has faced issues in the past that meant balancing people and the environment, and it will face these painful choices again. But how can the PEC resolve these difficulties unless it weighs environmental needs, social cohesion, and economic fairness?

Beginning in 2005, the PEC did strive to weigh the environmental, social, and economic benefits that would help it resolve these difficult choices. But times have changed. In my view, the PEC no longer wants to balance human needs like these against environmental needs. That is why, with great regret, I am resigning from the PEC.

And what entity will fill the breach left by the PEC’s abdication from social concerns? Some PEC members believe that social and economic needs are best left to the new Sustainable Princeton Community Plan, and that the PEC will advocate while Sustainable Princeton acts. But this fledgling group exists outside the PEC and has accomplished little that the PEC hadn’t already initiated.

Then what about our elected officials? Borough Council and Township Committee balance municipal financial needs as well as possible. I ask them to be diligent not only in chasing rateables, however, but also in considering when development diminishes Princeton’s social well-being.

Anne Waldron Neumann
Alexander Street

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