Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 48
 
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
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Princeton Ridge Debate Continues to be Marked By Environmental Issue

Matthew Hersh

Following the second public discussion in three weeks over a proposed senior housing development along a northwestern section of the Princeton Ridge, Princeton Township Committee Monday night voted to table a zoning amendment introduction that would, if passed, allow for the development of age 55-and-over housing, reducing the current 62-and-over zoning stipulation.

The governing body will revisit and possibly introduce the amendment at its December 3 meeting, but on Monday, as was the case at a discussion earlier this month, general concerns over development of the Princeton Ridge, regarded by environmentalists as sensitive terrain, were at the forefront of the dialogue.

For nearly seven years, Princeton Township has had two designated senior housing overlay zones located in two key parcels: one 30-acre tract off Mt. Lucas Road, and a 17-acre expanse on the western side of Bunn Drive, just south of Hilltop Park, which was the focus of Monday’s discussion. Earlier this year, a developer received approval to build 48, age 62-and-over units on the Mt. Lucas property, but a proposal put forth in August by architect J. Robert Hillier has reawakened many of the concerns that were aired in 2001, when the Township first implemented the designated senior housing zoning.

The Hillier plan consists of an “Italian Village,” developing roughly 7 acres of the 17-acre Bunn Drive tract into 146 market-rate housing units for seniors aged 55-and-up. An additional 12 units would be worked into the development for low- and- moderate-income families. Mr. Hillier, a Town Topics Inc. shareholder, has indicated that his development, with an estimated $60 to $70 million price tag, would include underground parking and sod roofs to reduce stormwater runoff —a major concern for project opponents who worry that increased development along the Ridge would exacerbate flooding downstream in Harry’s Brook.

The ordinance that Township Committee has up for discussion would not only reduce the age requirement to 55 for all occupants, but would lower the zone’s maximum impervious surface coverage to 30 percent, down from 40 percent, and would include a provision that at least eight-and-a-half acres of the 17-acre tract remain undeveloped, as well as a 40 percent common open space requirement. The proposed code also increases the maximum building height to 54 feet, up from the existing 49-foot limit.

Although the Hillier plan has been viewed favorably overall as a development, environmentalists have amplified concerns that had been present ever since the Township implemented the senior housing zoning in 2001. Those concerns were revisited in 2005 when developer K. Hovnanian received Planning Board approval to build 140, age 62-and-up, housing units over roughly 15 acres of the Bunn Tract, and are now under consideration again with Mr. Hillier’s proposal.

Hovnanian backed out of its approved project in late 2006, citing concerns over the marketability of a 62-and-up development. Other sources indicated that the developer had problems with the purchase price of the tract, owned by William and Laura Lowe, principals of the Short Hills-based Chatham Capital Investors, LLC. Mr. Hillier has reported that the contract purchase price of the land, pending zoning amendment approval, is in the $10-million range. The land purchase also includes a triangular, three-acre parcel directly across Bunn Drive, south of the Princeton Community Village entrance, which could be developed for affordable housing. Mr. Hillier has indicated that the land would be donated to Princeton Community Housing, the not-for-profit housing developer and manager, to expand Princeton Community Village, in addition to a donation to the Township’s affordable housing fund, which could reach the six-figure range.

The possible ramifications of further development along the Ridge were readily apparent Monday as Township Committee fielded questions over the fundamental philosophy of building in that area. Jim Waltman, executive director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, said that the proposed zoning amendments were “inconsistent” with the Princeton Community Master Plan objectives that would keep development away from environmentally sensitive areas, and that the state Department of Environmental Protection has identified endangered and threatened species in the Ridge area, including the wood turtle, the eastern box turtle, Cooper’s hawk, and Barred owl.

Mr. Waltman was the first speaker of the evening to suggest that a private financier could purchase the property for open space preservation, as was the case with Coventry Farm along the Great Road. Mr. Waltman presented a letter from Christopher J. Elliman, CEO of the Open Space Institute, describing loan funding dedicated for property conservation. The fund, according to Mr. Elliman’s letter, is capitalized through program-related investments from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the William Penn Foundation. Mr. Waltman said such financing, a “bridge loan,” could be feasible.

But Hovnanian’s development approval still stands, with the Regional Planning Board of Princeton this month extending the site plan approval by another year. Mr. Hillier also pointed out that the land is already zoned for development and if the senior housing overlay were rescinded, which has been a goal of the Princeton Environmental Commission, the underlying zoning on that land would be for office and research use, a point not lost on Committeeman Chad Goerner: “I would rather not have building here, but we also have to take in to consideration the property rights of the owner. It is zoned, and it has an underlying zone for an office complex.” Mr. Goerner appeared to be the most receptive to the idea of a private group purchasing the land for conservation.

Committeeman Lance Liverman said that he did not want to take risks with the land, and questioned whether private funding to purchase the tract was possible. “We didn’t hear about what would happen if someone like Mr. Hillier does not buy this land. None of us asked ourselves that.”

Daniel Harris, a Township resident who has taken a lead in the case against developing the Ridge, questioned whether certain members of Township Committee, namely Mayor Phyllis Marchand, Deputy Mayor Bernie Miller, and Committeewoman Vicky Bergman, were on the waiting list for Mr. Hillier’s development. Ms. Marchand and Mr. Miller indicated that they were not, but Ms. Bergman declined to answer, calling the question “inappropriate.” In a later interview, Ms. Bergman said: “I took an oath of office, and it’s an insult to suggest that I violated that oath. I think that answer speaks for itself.”

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Township Committee will hold an ordinance introduction hearing on proposed amendments to the senior housing overlay zone on Bunn Drive Monday, December 3, at 7 p.m. at Township Hall. If Township Committee introduces the measure, the Regional Planning Board of Princeton will discuss the ordinance at its December 6 meeting, at 7:30 p.m., at Township Hall.

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