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Vol. LXIV, No. 25
 
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
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Westerly Road Church Can Build on Ridge

Dilshanie Perera

In an 8-3 vote late last Thursday night, the Princeton Regional Planning Board approved Westerly Road Church’s plans for building a new religious edifice on an 18.5-acre tract of land along Bunn Drive. The meeting was the fourth session of an extended hearing that had begun in April.

Voting against the proposal were Marvin Reed, Janet Stern, and Barbara Trelstad. Other board members who voted in favor of the church expressed emotions ranging from approval to disappointment.

Major opposition to the church’s proposed designs in previous sessions came from those concerned about the environmental sensitivity of the site, which is located on Princeton Ridge. They advocated for minimizing the total site disturbance as much as possible, by building a two-story edifice, reducing parking, and shifting the entire construction area as far away as possible from the wetlands located on the site.

Responding to concerns raised by Engineer Margaret Snyder at the last meeting, Township Stormwater Management Consultant Joe Skupien addressed the seasonal high water table at the Bunn Drive site, noting that much of the saturation there was likely due to tests taken immediately after the rains during the spring. He noted that even if ground water levels were high, “they could be easily rectified.”

Nonetheless, “we’re recommending that additional test pits be taken at four or five [test locations] to confirm if the ground water design could be modified to work better,” Mr. Skupien added.

Ms. Snyder countered, “My concern is that we don’t know with 100 percent certainty whether it’s the wetting front or the seasonal high water table.”

Jennifer Coffey of the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, as well as residents Daniel Harris, Jane Buttars, and Grace Sinden all called for additional testing as well.

Pointing out that Westerly Road Church did not engage in a concept review with the Planning Board prior to the filing of their final application, Mr. Reed said that “we would have had a dialogue and back and forth to jointly determine ways of minimizing the site disturbance.”

Mr. Reed enumerated the ideas “of considerable promise” presented in previous meetings by the Environmental Commission and others and said that he was “disappointed” they had not been incorporated into the final design plan.

The ideas included moving the building closer to Herrontown Road and asking for a variance for the 150 foot buffer; adding more porous surfacing in the parking areas; and creating a two-story structure in which the classrooms and administration areas could occupy the second floor, thereby reducing the overall building footprint.

Attorney Daniel Haggerty of Stark and Stark, who was representing Westerly Road Church, told the board that “we tried really hard.” He explained that the topographical features and soil composition made the current plan for building placement the optimal one. “Putting more of the building on the second floor wouldn’t affect the disturbance area,” he added.

Ms. Trelstad inquired further into why a smaller building footprint would not result in a smaller overall disturbance, and was told by Project Engineer Gary Vecchio that the parking requirements would constrain the reduction. If 10 spaces were eliminated, then a smaller disturbance could be achieved, but that would require a variance.

“If its only 10 spaces … that’s the kind of variance we like to grant,” Mr. Reed said.

Mr. Haggerty responded that “we think this is a fair place for the church to end up.”

Following the initial part of the hearing in April, Westerly Road Church revised its plan to include a few classrooms moved up to a second floor. The change reduced the impervious coverage from 4.3 to 3.6 acres, Mr. Haggerty noted.

Board member Audrey Chen said that she couldn’t “fully understand the programming reasons for minimizing the [two-story] stack,” adding that the current design was “not what I consider a full embracing of a consensus design.”

In his closing remarks, Mr. Haggerty pointed out that the “church has spent a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money to build a new facility that will adequately serve the needs of this community.”

Elaborating on the “number of concessions made from the advice it has received,” Mr. Haggerty listed changes that included reducing the total site disturbance from 8.1 acres to 6.7 acres; a revised storm water management system; granting a conservation easement; adding in bike paths along Bunn Drive and Herrontown Road; and increasing the number of trees to be planted to 294.

“The church is following all of the rules. This should, and must, matter. Government must faithfully, fairly, and justly administer its own rules,” Mr. Haggerty said, adding, “I’m sorry to say that Westerly Road Church feels that it has been unfairly targeted by interested parties.”

The site will “serve a religious community,” Mr. Haggerty remarked. “Environmental groups had the same opportunity to buy and use the property.”

Board member Lance Liverman said that he felt that “the building could have been smaller, and that some parking could have been eliminated,” but after reflecting on the “best thing to do for the Princeton community,” he said he would vote in favor of the application.

Gail Ullman said she “searched for a very good reason to turn [the application] down,” but as the proposal complied thoroughly with the letter of the law, she said she had to vote to approve.

“Where is our spirit of cooperation?” wondered Peter Madison, noting that the case had riled his emotions. He questioned those present as to whether their own homes minimized site disturbance and curbed emissions. “Should we hold the church to a higher standard?”

“I have listened very seriously to the concerns of the Shade Tree Commission, the Princeton Environmental Commission, and the Site Plan Review Advisory Board,” Ms. Trelstad said. “There comes a time for change … and I am extremely disappointed we could not come to some sort of compromise for [the church] and the community.”

Mayor Mildred Trotman said she “would have preferred a different design” but would support the church’s plans, while Mayor Bernie Miller noted that “it is unfortunate that the land use law has not caught up with community thinking.”

“Whatever the church builds on this site is going to be there for a long time. We all have a responsibility to preserve this space for future generations and I hope the church recognizes its responsibility,” Mr. Miller added.

Both Ms. Chen and Ms. Stern said that the proposal’s final form left them “heartsick” and “heartbroken,” respectively, with Ms. Stern noting that the design could have been more conservative, but that the church was within its legal rights.

Wanda Gunning noted that she would vote to approve the plan, but paused to address environmentalists directly. “You need to move along. You have to ask your elected officials to enact ordinances” that would assist in preservation.

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