Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 25
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
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State Reviews Cottage Club Legislation

Matthew Hersh

The state Senate's Budget and Appropriations Committee Monday gave a unanimous nod to a bill that could spell a major victory for Princeton Borough, which has navigated legislative waters in an effort to keep a privately owned Princeton University eating club on the tax rolls, by amending the rules for state historic site designation.

The bill, S-2808, which has yet to be set for a full Senate vote, was sponsored by Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Ewing) and applies to sites seeking historic designation after July 1, 1999; it would require the state Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that administers such designation, to not only make a historic site available to the public 96 days per year, but would require that the historic preservation be the primary mission of the site's corresponding not-for-profit agency.

On Thursday an identical Assembly bill sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton Borough) was endorsed 5-1 by the Housing and Local Government Committee. That committee released the bill for a full Assembly vote, set for this Thursday.

The bill would amend a 2004 state statute that would effectively apply the new requirements to any application for historic certification submitted in 2001 or after. Lawmakers supporting the bill have argued that the retroactive nature of the legislation is lawful, and that the amendment would illustrate the intent of the Legislature's 2004 action, when a law was passed to require historic sites to have the 96 days of open access.

At that time, however, Cottage Club attorneys contended that since the club applied for historic site certification prior to the passage of that legislation, new regulations would not apply. An appellate division of the state Supreme Court agreed, ruling last month that the club would quality for such designation under current law, which mandates 12 days of annual public access.

That decision, as of now, requires Princeton Borough to pay Cottage Club roughly $320,000 in back taxes — about $50,000 for every year since the club applied for historic site certification.

The original 1962 state statutory rules indicates that DEP would make the final determination in deeming sites historic, but, according to Andrew Koontz, a member of Borough Council, those rules point to a more "informal process" that had been developed by DEP. Most of the properties that have been declared historic, Mr. Koontz said, are legitimate and "are in the spirit of the law and had the intent of historic designation." Not so with the Cottage Club, he said.

"It's laughable to think that the Cottage Club's sole purpose is historic preservation. It's absurd."

Cottage Club attorneys were not available for comment, but Mr. Koontz said that the law, as it exists, "practically invites abuse, because the value of the incentive is so great."

In a statement, Princeton Borough Mayor Mildred Trotman was critical of the current law, saying that buildings like the Cottage Club were not readily available for public access. Council President Peggy Karcher pointed to Cottage Club-related activities, one of 10 fraternity-like eating clubs along Prospect Avenue. "There is not a single club on Prospect Avenue that has as its primary goal, or even as its secondary goal, the preservation of the historic significance of the premises."

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