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Vol. LXIV, No. 23
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
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Westerly Road Church Decision Put Off Until June 17 Meeting of Planning Board

Dilshanie Perera

In what was the third installment of the Planning Board hearing concerning Westerly Road Church’s (WRC) proposal for building its new church space on Princeton Ridge, board members heard testimony from over 40 members of the public, who spoke both for and against the proposed development. A decision on whether the church may go ahead with the construction is expected during the June 17 open public meeting of the Planning Board, which will be held at the Township Municipal Complex at 7:30 p.m.

The main source of residents’ opposition to the church’s application were environmental concerns about the impact of development on Princeton Ridge. Due to more impervious coverage in the area, some said storm water management could be a challenge, as would building in close proximity to the wetlands.

Proponents of the development cited the benefits they had derived from attending Westerly Road Church (WRC), and lauded the institution for its ethic of service, assuring the board that the church and congregation would be good stewards of the land.

The current application by WRC involves a site disturbance of 7 acres on the 18.5-acre parcel of land, and a partial two-story building design allowing for 45,068 square feet of interior space. Two hundred twenty-six parking spaces are also part of the plan, with 52 spaces banked for future use. A detention basin located on the tract is supposed to mitigate storm water runoff and excess water.

Numerous suggestions were made by members of the public regarding design changes that could alleviate some of the environmental burden of building on the land, including fully stacking the church building and parking so that each encompasses two stories, thereby minimizing the footprint.

Shifting the construction closer to Bunn Drive and Herrontown Road would also move it away from the wetlands on the Ridge, and the board was urged to grant a variance to allow the church to do so.

Chair of the Princeton Environmental Commission Matthew Wasserman called for minimizing the detention basin, and asked for details regarding LEED certification. He brought up a previous proposal that WRC filed with Lawrence Township in 2002 that was denied because it did not “comport to their own Master Plan.”

Policy Director of the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association Jennifer Coffey noted her concern, saying that such a development on an ecologically sensitive area would go against Princeton’s Master Plan. “We can choose to develop, remembering that nature doesn’t have a voice, or we can choose to protect the Ridge.” If building on the Ridge cannot be avoided, she suggested minimizing site disturbance to 19 percent of the total acreage and placing limits on parking.

Professional engineer and storm water management expert Margaret Snyder highlighted four areas of concern regarding water drainage on the site as it is currently proposed, including: the condition of the underlying soils on the site, soil compacting that would occur during the construction process, nonstructural storm water mitigation strategies, and the maintenance of the storm water apparatus.

Resident Louis Wagman worried about traffic and flooding that would result because of the proposed development, emphasizing that “we can’t afford improper storm water management on the Ridge … every proper step should be taken.”

“A tax-exempt organization has a moral obligation to reduce environmental damage,” said resident Grace Sinden, who praised J. Robert Hiller’s (a Town Topics shareholder) new designs for building energy-efficient senior housing on the Lowe Tract along Bunn Drive, resulting in a site disturbance of 3.5 acres out of the 21-acre plot.

Congregants of Westerly Road Church like Catherine Quinlen praised the organization’s “social, economic, and ethnic diversity,” noting that “ours is a church community that is really welcoming.” After 54 years, they no longer fit into their space, and are hopeful for what the move to a larger expanse could help them achieve.

Longtime Princeton resident Robert George, who described himself as a “great admirer of the church,” said he was “so glad that the church wants to remain in our community,” noting that “there are tradeoffs that have to be made … all of which implicate public interests.”

Having migrated as a child from Haiti to Princeton in 1975, Carine Toussaint was tutored in English at Westerly Road Church, and has since become a member of the congregation. “Service is the core mission of the church. Through expanded facilities, we can positively impact the world around us,” she said.

Peter Becker of Lawrenceville praised the “unique social glue” that WRC provides, particularly for “people and families with children with special needs.” Other parents underscored the role the church plays in their children’s lives as well.

Senior Pastor of the Princeton Presbyterian Church Ken Smith noted similarities between a previous site plan application that his own church had been through and that of WRC, but urged the board and the church to find common ground that could translate into a new site for worship that would be environmentally friendly and result in the smallest site impact. “It’s my belief that the congregation wants to work with you,” he said to the board, “and you represent the best building that can be put up.”

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