Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 20
 
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
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As Decision Nears, Argument Continues on Westerly Road Church Development

(Six letters follow)

Volunteers Thanked for Beautification at Barbara Sigmund Park and Gardens

POLLY BURLINGHAM
Scott Lane
Princeton Parks Alliance

Letter Carriers Thanked by Food Bank for Food Drive Helping 20,000 People

PHYLLIS C. STOOLMACHER
Director, Mercer Street Friends Food Bank

Township Taxpayer Is Left Frustrated by “Adversarial” Tax Appeal Process

THOMAS H. PYLE
Balsam Lane


As Decision Nears, Argument Continues on Westerly Road Church Development

To the Editor:

At the first hearing before the Regional Planning Board of Princeton for the application of the Westerly Road Church to build new facilities on Bunn Drive, three things became evident. The application is not only for a house of Sunday worship but also a facility for a school. The application appears to be legally tight on the details, but it ignores the Princeton Master Plan. And, surprisingly, the applicant showed ignorance of the realities of the rock at the site.

In order for the applicant to do what it wants, it needs to re-distribute vast amounts of exceptionally hard bedrock. One need only look at an apparently abandoned construction site at 437 Drakes Corner Road to understand that charging ahead through the same rock as at the Bunn Drive site can create unexpected expense and mess.

Building two stories instead of one and building two layers of parking instead of one would minimize the amount of rock that needs to be excavated.

I hope the applicant will come back with a plan for the May 20 Planning Board meeting that will respect the environment we all live in, and that will respect the Princeton Master Plan.

LINCOLN S. HOLLISTER
Ridgeview Road

To the Editor:

Westerly Road Church has been a vital part of the Princeton community for over 50 years. Since it first proposed building a new church, it has listened respectfully to input from a number of community groups and boards. From these interactions, the Church has improved its plan to replace its currently aging, energy-inefficient, and otherwise inadequate building on Westerly Road with a new church on the corner of Bunn Drive and Herrontown Road. The proposed site is commercially zoned and located adjacent to other commercial development. The trees on the site are not part of an old-growth forest nor is it one of the “environmentally significant areas” designated in the latest version of the Master Plan.

Nonetheless, the Church has committed itself to being a responsible steward of the land. The wetlands on the property will not be touched, and the Church has agreed to reduce its surface parking by over one-fifth. To manage stormwater, the Church plans to install a rain garden, a bioretention swale, and has committed to using a pervious parking surface to facilitate groundwater recharge. Indeed, Joe Skupien, the Township’s stormwater consultant, recently testified that the Church’s development of the site would actually reduce runoff and, hence, the potential for flooding. Less than 40 percent of the site would be disturbed in any way, and the Church has set a goal of replacing all live cut trees removed in the process of construction. The Church is currently pursuing LEED certification (as a “green” building) and investigating the use of geothermal energy for heating and cooling. The Church has voluntarily offered to place a deed restriction on the property, meaning that the Church would essentially be donating seven and a half acres for permanent conservation and public use. It has even taken the initiative to redesign the building on two stories, reducing the footprint by almost 6,000 square feet.

With all of this, it hardly seems fair to paint the Church as anything other than responsive. From the beginning, its plans have complied fully with the expectations of the broader Princeton community as set forth in the existing land use code. Admittedly, as a church our concerns transcend trees, boulders, and wetlands to include the young and the old, men and women, and those who are physically and spiritually in need. In addressing these needs, there are bound to be tradeoffs, since no church’s budget is unlimited. As a non-profit we must use our resources wisely, and to the extent that the environmental community has helped us to do so, we are grateful for their counsel.

JOSEPH DILUZIO
Devereux Avenue

To the Editor:

In light of the upcoming meeting of the Princeton Regional Planning Board on May 20 to consider the Westerly Road Church (WRC) application to build on Princeton Ridge, one can grieve that WRC leadership has failed to hear the clear messages by members of the Planning Board on April 8 as well as members of the community: put the building and parking areas on two levels (as recommended by both the Princeton Environmental Commission and the Site Plan Review Advisory Board) and thereby reduce the total site disturbance, including the loss of trees.

The WRC architect has given lip service to the first injunction and ignored the second. Total site disturbance remains unchanged at 9.1 acres — still an excessive one-level facility sprawl, with a huge (one acre) detention basin unaltered. For the building Mr. Hughes, the architect, has stacked the minimum possible: 6800 sq. ft. (approximately 8.6 percent of the total building footprint), less than the 7500 sq. ft. he suggested on April 8, and less than the 10,000 sq. ft. of which he spoke to the Site Plan Review Advisory Board on March 17.

Why doesn’t WRC understand that stacking doesn’t much matter unless it’s accompanied by a comparable, substantial reduction in total site disturbance? Why is WRC leadership so oblivious or indifferent to the goals of the Princeton Master Plan regarding the Princeton Ridge?

As a tax-exempt organization, WRC should be especially sensitive to fulfilling its obligations as a responsive citizen to the larger community in doing least harm and by performing sustainable development. Its current plan indicates very little of the now common knowledge about building in environmentally sensitive areas.

The Planning Board has an obligation to press WRC to show why building on two levels is unduly expensive. Knowledgeable people, including non-WRC building professionals, have generated cost figures that indicate that the WRC cry of “too expensive” will not stand close scrutiny.

WRC’s decision to donate the wetlands on the property to open space adjacent to Herrontown Woods is welcome, but is also a no-brainer. What will it take to get WRC leadership to recognize that conservation matters, that preserved forest has considerable value? Where is their sense of responsibility?

GRACE SINDEN
Ridgeview Circle

To the Editor:

Oftentimes we forget what an amazing opportunity we are given to discuss ideas, have public discourse about differing and even contentious opinions, and still have an outcome that is better than when we first began, because we’ve taken the time to listen and take into account the varying concerns of our community. This is the lens through which Westerly Road Church’s relocation efforts on Bunn Drive’s office/commercially zoned site should be viewed. The church has listened to the various concerns over the relocation efforts and has made real and substantial changes to its project, all at a high cost of time, energy, and resources.

In light of feedback, the church has addressed concerns raised by:

• Deeding a conservation easement of approximately 7.5 acres to the Township.

• Proposing to improve approximately 3.6 of the 18 acres (less than 20 percent), and keeping over 11.5 acres undisturbed (almost 65 percent).

• Cutting only 400 live trees of the 1500 trees on site and planning to replace all live trees cut, preferably on site or on the current Westerly Road property.

• Redesigning our space to a 2-story design, while keeping in mind the needs of our mobility limited members.

• Trimming the total number of parking spaces to 278 and agreeing to bank 52 of those spaces so that they will be built only if truly needed.

• Committing to replace pervious pavement with porous permeable material for the parking spaces where the underlying surface permits the use of such materials.

• Adding a rain garden/bio-retention swale to further increase the amount of rainwater drainage.

• Eliminating parking/roadways along the eastern (Herrontown Woods) side of the property from the initial plan.

• Pursuing LEED (Green) certification on the plan.

We are proud of our design and, perhaps more importantly, the open and flexible spirit we had in arriving at such a plan. We hope that through this process our relationship and trust with the community has only been strengthened.

JOHN BEESON
Associate Pastor
Westerly Road Church

To the Editor:

The Princeton Regional Planning Board will meet on May 20 to rule on the Westerly Road Church application to develop acreage on the environmentally sensitive Princeton Ridge.

While WRC has assented verbally to some pervious surfacing and some preservation of arboreal understory, it has submitted no modified overall plans; it remains stubbornly committed to sprawl over nine acres. The Princeton Environmental Commission and the Site Plan Review Advisory Board have recommended that the Planning Board deny the developer’s application until environmentally sustainable plans have been submitted: a main building and parking spaces built on two levels. Nothing less is appropriate for the fragile Princeton Ridge.

The Planning Board should courageously heed these recommendations. While the developer may threaten a lawsuit under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, this law does not apply. No one questions the developer’s right to buy and build. A Planning Board condition of approval that the developer build on two levels to spare terrain in no way abridges WRC’s religious freedoms. A two-story “green” site-plan would not, financially, impose a “substantial burden” on the developer (who would have to demonstrate otherwise), especially since the invasive, expensive detention basin would be unnecessary. Moreover, “green” ordinances recently passed by both Princetons allow the Planning Board to argue justifiably that imposing a condition of building on two levels would be a ruling “in furtherance of a compelling government interest.”

No planning board that votes in fear of lawsuits can actualize the principles of smart land use needed for a community’s sustainability. Princeton citizens trust our Planning Board to honor the community’s best interests. The Planning Board must say frankly to this developer: “Produce another site plan that respects this environmentally critical acreage, and we will happily consider that new site-plan, later.”

DANIEL A. HARRIS
Dodds Lane

To the Editor:

What do the Westerly Road Church, Princeton Planning Board and environmentalists have in common? The answer is stewardship. All are called to sound stewardship in the exercise of their responsibilities to the community. The pastors and elders of the church have shown stewardship primarily to their congregation and in outreach to others. Members of the Planning Board have demonstrated stewardship in carefully regulating land use. Environmental groups work to preserve the biodiversity of Princeton.

The Princeton Site Plan Review Advisory Board has recommended an intelligent alternative to the WRC proposal that would reduce both development cost and environmental damage. Accepting the Board’s suggestions would be a wonderful opportunity for the church to show belief in a stewardship of creation by action that conserves the natural beauty of the land. To ignore this opportunity could cast doubt in the minds of those who esteem the good this church has performed in the past. In the words of Psalm 96, “all the trees of the forest will sing for joy…” if the WRC responds affirmatively to the changes suggested.

LOUIS SLEE
Spruce Street

Volunteers Thanked for Beautification at Barbara Sigmund Park and Gardens

To the Editor:

A big thank you for everyone who came out on a windy Mother’s Day to help with the annual clean-up and planting day at the Barbara Sigmund Park and Gardens on Hamilton Avenue at Chestnut Street. This year a lovely new corner garden was generously donated by Fred Hirsch, and petunias donated from Maddens Nursery were lovingly planted with a “wish” by volunteers.

Drive by and enjoy the gardens.

POLLY BURLINGHAM
Scott Lane
Princeton Parks Alliance

Letter Carriers Thanked by Food Bank for Food Drive Helping 20,000 People

To the Editor:

On behalf of the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, I extend our heartfelt appreciation to our area letter carriers for collecting food donations as they went along their routes on Saturday, May 8. At the end of the day, the Food Bank’s warehouse was filled with postal tubs overflowing with food donated by caring residents.

For two decades, the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank has been at the forefront of the fight to end hunger in Mercer County, supplying food to pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens as well as non-emergency food programs.

Yet at no time in our 20-plus year history have we faced such difficult times or been needed by so many. Well over 20,000 people received food supplied by the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank last month, and until the economy and the employment situation improves, there will be increasing numbers of people and households in Mercer County facing severe food shortages.

This is why the National Association of Letter Carriers Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive is so critical, and provides the food we need to ensure that the most vulnerable of our neighbors do not go hungry.

I thank the letter carriers for collecting the food, the U.S. Postal Service for delivering the food, and members of the Mercer County Central Labor Council AFL-CIO for helping to unload the tractor-trailers and stack all the donations. Lastly, I extend our gratitude to all the compassionate people who left donations by the mailboxes.

Be assured that the results of these efforts will make a difference in the lives and well-being of those who experience the pain and indignity of hunger.

PHYLLIS C. STOOLMACHER
Director, Mercer Street Friends Food Bank

Township Taxpayer Is Left Frustrated by “Adversarial” Tax Appeal Process

To the Editor:

As I sourly review my new tax assessment, which has more than doubled, two recent incidents have struck me. First was a clerk’s response at the Tax Assessment office. Second was the Township Committee’s letter to the paper about the “threat” to their zero tax increase intent.

At the Tax Assessor’s office, I was trying to decipher the mysterious coding on the printouts about my property. The weary clerk, no doubt good hearted but perhaps overwrought by the many citizens seeking to appeal, told me that there was a limit to what she could do to help me, that she represented the Township and not me, that assessment challenges are “an adversarial process,” and that it took her four years of course work at Rutgers to be able to answer some of the questions I was asking.

As a taxpayer living in the highest property tax community in the highest property tax state, I was chilled by her seemingly frosty response. At this extraordinarily difficult moment in New Jersey economic history, with property taxpayers up against the wall, when a Governor is finally trying to overcome a decade of recklessly irresponsible taxing and spending, I did not take well to hearing from one of my Township’s public servants that it and I must now be adversaries over my property tax assessment.

Then I read our Township Committee’s letter (Town Topics, May 12) preparing us for a 1.8 percent tax increase that, the members write, may result from an unexpected $455,000 cut from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs in municipal aid. I’m sorry to hear about the cut. But I’m not so sympathetic that the Committee may now not fulfill its zero tax increase pledge. I have no doubt that our good-hearted faithful town leaders believe they are doing all they can. But my response is still: Do the bold thing, as you have in your power to do. No excuses. Do what we citizens want and need. Bring our budget in this year — especially this year — with no tax increases!

THOMAS H. PYLE
Balsam Lane

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