Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 13
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
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Ridge Advocacy Group Sues Township

Matthew Hersh

An advocacy group formed to prevent a proposed senior housing development along a geographically sensitive area in the northeast section of the Township formally filed suit last week against Township Committee and Mayor Phyllis Marchand, alleging that Township Hall violated environmental, zoning, and housing codes.

The suit, filed March 17 in Mercer County Superior Court, is the culmination of efforts of a not-for-profit organization, People for Princeton Ridge, attempting to curb development along roughly 20 acres in an area known as the Princeton Ridge, which stretches east-west along the northern span of the Township. This particular area, just west of Bunn Drive, was identified by the Township in 2001 as an area in which to achieve municipal senior housing goals.

The land, which is privately owned by the Short Hills-based Chatham Capital Investors, had been zoned for age 62-and-over housing. But following a series of meetings, both public and private with J. Robert Hillier, the contract purchaser for the land and a shareholder of Town Topics, Inc., the Township ultimately changed the overlay zoning there in January, changes that include a reduction in age minimum to age 55, down from the previous 62 requirement. That change, Mr. Hillier argued, was a necessary one, calling the age-62 market too restrictive and that loosening the age restriction would help to advance the Township’s long-stated housing goal, as well as philosophies listed in the Princeton Community Master Plan.

The Township Committee’s unanimous move to allow for new zoning there was immediately lauded by housing advocates, who had devoted the better part of two decades to pushing for an increased stock in senior housing within the Princetons. But the celebratory tone faded quickly when it became clear that Township Hall’s unanimous vote would be challenged with a lawsuit filed by opposed residents, who have characterized development along the Princeton Ridge as a threat to the environment there, and have argued that the specific ordinance advanced by the Township Monday provides an insufficient level of affordable housing.

In short, the suit alleges that Mayor and Committee exercised spot zoning; created an “unlawful local preference mandate,” a charge against the zoning’s allowance for a Princeton resident marketing preference; wrongfully mandated a developer’s agreement where any developer would donate an adjacent three-acre parcel (part of the tract) to the Township for future municipal purposes; violated Council on Affordable Housing requirements by not stipulating enough affordable units; created an “unconstitutional” age preference in the 55-and-over standard; and provided a “lack of substantial and credible evidence” in rezoning the land.

The amended code places a cap of 158 units on the area, which falls in the Township’s RSC-2 Zoning District, contingent on the approval of 12 sale units to be marketed as affordable, per federal provisions and state mandates. Specifically, the ordinance allows for 146 units, with eight moderate-income and four low-income units built into the development. In addition, there would be a commitment required from the developer to satisfy the growth share requirements, as reflected by the state’s Council on Affordable Housing. However, because the COAH’s latest round of affordable housing regulations is still under review, Princeton Township, along with other New Jersey municipalities, has yet to devise a new growth share ordinance. Any builder on the Bunn site would have to comply with any new requirements, as well as providing the 12 basic on-site affordable units.

According to new zoning provisions, 24 of the units built are required to be marketed to middle income households. The ordinance also stipulates a builder’s compliance with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.

With this suit, however, any development there will be postponed for now. Daniel Harris, a Township resident and principal of People for Princeton Ridge, termed the amended zoning “an illegal ordinance that would irrevocably damage Princeton’s environment.” Mr. Harris pointed to a petition signed by 1,360 Princeton residents opposing the plan. He added that he hoped a drawn-out lawsuit could be avoided, calling for a “mutually acceptable resolution.”

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