Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 21
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
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Commission Wants to Reverse Senior Zoning, but Township Committee Appears Resolute

Matthew Hersh

The Princeton Environmental Commission, following up on a discussion earlier this year on preserving environmentally sensitive lands along the Princeton Ridge, was more or less rebuffed on a technicality Monday as the agency urged the governing body to reconsider zoning in a senior-housing designated zone on Bunn Drive.

In a memo issued to Township Committee, the Commission pointed to recently approved senior developments, and other pending projects, as a reason to preserve this property, and questioned the actual availability of the land, specifically pointing to potential environmental constraints too daunting for a developer to overcome. The area is composed of significant levels of bedrock, requiring developers to use blasting as a means of making the land amenable to construction.

In 2001, Township Committee identified the 20-acre site, just south of Hilltop Park, as a prime area in which to develop age-restricted housing. Township Committee created two senior housing overlay zones, the Bunn Drive site, and another 28-acre site between Mt. Lucas Road and Route 206.

Then, in 2005, developer K. Hovnanian received a nod from the Regional Planning Board of Princeton to build 140 age-restricted housing units on the site. That project, however, was called off in late summer 2006 when the developer cited a decline in the housing market. However, according to sources close to the negotiations between the developer and property owner, the Short Hills-based Chatham Capital Investors, another obstacle involved ironing out the details of a land sale.

But the Planning Board's approval runs with the land, and not with the developer, said Township attorney Ed Schmierer. Once the site is approved for development, even if the Township were to change the zoning there, development rights are protected for up to five years, depending on how steadfast the property owner is in maintaining those approvals.

The site, according to Mr. Schmierer, is protected against zoning changes for three years, and then potentially two additional years if the property owner chooses to renew the approval. Mr. Schmierer questioned the likelihood that any such owner would want to abandon received development approvals. "It is not likely that, with those approvals, they would be voluntarily abandoned," he said.

Grace Sinden, a member of the Environmental Commission, further pointed to the potential difficulties of developing that land, saying that Hovnanian, while citing poor market trends in withdrawing the Princeton application, is still building its "Four Seasons" brand of age-restricted housing in other parts of the state. The developer will have 16 adults-only developments on the market this year, Ms. Sinden's memo said.

Yet another snag in Hovnanian developing on that land, however, was a desire on their part to lower the housing restriction from 62-and-up to 55-and-up. Under federal housing mandates, 55-and-up designations only require one member of a household to be over 55, whereas 62-and-up require all residents to be of that age or above. Township Committee, which has had a long-standing policy favoring senior housing, would appear to be lukewarm to lowering the housing age designation.

Laura Lowe, a principal in Chatham Capital Investors with her husband, William, said the Township needs senior housing, and that she and her husband would continue to try to find a developer suitable for that property. The Lowes have owned the property for nearly 30 years.

"I respect the Environmental Commission's concern, but they have to realize that we need this type of housing in Princeton. We have, unfortunately, this type of situation; otherwise, Hovnanian would have started their development.

"But nonetheless, this development is needed, and environmentally, we're looking to take great care in building on this property. We want to preserve as much as possible, but that area is very suitable for senior housing," Ms. Lowe said.

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