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Vol. LXI, No. 38
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
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Hillier Zoning Proposal Has Township Hall Rethinking Bunn Drive

Matthew Hersh

A proposal to relax the senior housing age requirement as outlined in the zoning for a 20-acre expanse along Bunn Drive could lead other developers to amend their applications from the once-required age 62-and-over mandate to a proposed 55-and-up requirement, according to Township officials.

An amendment would be viewed as an attractive alternative, officials acknowledge, considering that a younger age requirement could enhance a development’s marketability and, in turn, increase the salability of its individual housing units.

The lowering of the senior housing age standard was addressed last week as Township Committee held a discussion in closed session on the merits of architect J. Robert Hillier‘s proposal to develop 146 senior units on Bunn Drive, just south of Hilltop Park, with an age requirement of 55 and over. Current zoning in that area carries an age minimum of 62, but following the October 2006 withdrawal of an approved plan by national developer K. Hovnanian, the ability to develop that area has remained in doubt. Hovnanian officials, at the time of its pulling an application to build 140 units on the same tract, cited market trends questioning the feasibility of housing with such strict age requirements.

Officials familiar with that proposal, which received approval from the Regional Planning Board of Princeton in 2005, also pointed to the asking price of the land, owned by the Short Hills-based Chatham Capital Investors, LLC. Mr. Hillier’s purchase of that land, with a reported asking price of about $10 million, is contingent on the Township rezoning the property to allow for age 55-and-up housing, the architect, a shareholder at Town Topics Inc., said in an interview.

And while Mr. Hillier has proposed a development that is significantly denser than the Hovnanian proposal, and would develop only a portion of the site, Township Hall appears to be ironing out details of a counter-proposal to Mr. Hillier’s initiative. Those details apparently relate to the affordable housing requirement that Mr. Hillier’s estimated $70 million development would entail.

The Chatham Capital Investors land sale not only includes the 20-acre tract on the west side of Bunn Drive, but also another small parcel, just slightly larger than three acres, located directly across the road, south of the main entrance to Princeton Community Village. That land could hold an estimated 12 to 20 affordable units if Mr. Hillier’s plan moves forward.

The Hillier plan would also have to be re-approved by the Planning Board, this time with an affordable housing component, unlike the Hovnanian development, which was approved with a $25,000 payment to the Township in lieu of affordable housing construction.

“It’s not like he’s purchasing an approved site plan,” said Township attorney Edwin Schmierer. With Mr. Hillier proposing to develop the site and seeking zoning changes, Township Hall is also likely to consider requiring more open space in that zoning district, the Residential Senior Community district, or RSC-1.

The current design standard for the RSC-1 zone calls for 40 percent open space, but the Hillier plan, in its initial form, provides substantially more than that. If Mr. Hillier were to walk away from the plan, or not receive approval, Township Hall could still use that concept illustration in implementing a similar design standard for future developers of that area.

Lowering the age standard does not necessarily resolve the Township’s decade-long quest for market rate senior housing. Township Hall could create a scenario where only some of the RSC-1 housing would have an age minimum of 55 and other areas of the zone an age minimum of 62. The Township has long stuck to the idea of 62-and-over housing, largely because federal standards for that type of housing stipulate that all residents under one roof be 62 or over. With the age-55 designation, only one resident has to be at least 55 years old, and other residents could include a younger spouse and children.

But when he approached the Township Committee in August, Mr. Hillier pointed to the statewide lack of current 62-and-over housing projects and to the fact that the Township could be more successful in executing its housing goals by lowering the age standard. Members of Committee seemed warm to his proposal, but vowed to hold public hearings before changing the zoning in the Bunn Drive district.

Moreover, if the Township lowers the age standard in the RSC-1, it is almost certain that Princeton Senior Townhomes, the Greenwich, Conn.-based developer that won approval in May to build 49 senior units in the Township’s RSC-2 zone off Mount Lucas Road just north of Redding Circle, would also be interested in widening its marketability by resubmitting its plan to accommodate the age 55-designation.

The affordable housing requirement, per any new regulations, could be the sticking point in any negotiations between the Township and a prospective developer, however. If the Township lowers the age standard for either the RSC-1 or RSC-2 zones, a developer would be required to supply units for low-income residents per the state’s growth share plan. The requirement currently is that for every eight market rate units, a developer must build one affordable unit. Mr. Hillier’s proposal would require about 17 units.

Township Committee held a closed-session meeting specifically on the Hillier proposal because it was discussing specifics of a developer’s agreement regarding affordable housing between the Township and the developer, Mr. Hillier, Mr. Schmierer said, adding that Township Committee is expected to continue a public discussion on any proposed zoning change at an October meeting.

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