July 3, 2012

Bill Exempting Schools From Zoning Rules Passes in Senate

A bill (S-1534) that would exempt private universities and colleges from observing local zoning rules was passed in the State Senate late last week by a vote of 25 to 8, with seven senators abstaining. It now awaits consideration, probably some time in the fall, by the Assembly.

“The Senate vote was a blow, but now we must focus our attention on the Assembly,” said Township Deputy Mayor Liz Lempert, who will run in November as the Democratic mayoral candidate for the combined municipalities in 2013.

“The purpose of municipal land use law is to protect communities from development that threatens their character and environment,” continued Ms. Lempert. “Universities provide a great service, but that doesn’t mean they should be above the law. Princeton is particularly vulnerable because there are several institutions in town Р including Princeton University, the Seminary, and Rider Р who would become exempt from land use laws under this proposed legislation, and whose unchecked development could severely damage entire neighborhoods.”

In recent weeks both Borough Council and Township Committee passed resolutions speaking out against the bill, and both Borough Mayor Yina Moore and Township Mayor Chad Goerner were among the mayors who signed an open letter to the New Jersey State Senate opposing it.

“WeКadamantly opposeКthis legislation, which undermines and usurps local decision making and severely diminishes the role of our taxpayers,” the letter began. Other signatories included the mayors of Bloomfield, Caldwell, Hackettstown, Hoboken, Jersey City, Lawrence Township (Mercer), Madison, South Orange, and West Long Branch.

“[A]s a host community of a private institution of higher education, we view our partnership with our schools as one of mutual benefit for the entire community,” the mayors wrote.К“Schools are our partnersКin planningКfor our community, and the ‘town-gown’ relationship isКaКkey to our future growth.” The letter notes that that the “‘partnership’ must be an equal one. It is ironic that the bill descriptionКtalks about equalizing private colleges and universities, since, in fact, the bill creates an unequal relationship between these institutions and their neighbors, our taxpayers.”

A spokesperson for the Institute for Advanced Study said that they did not have a comment on the success of the bill in the State Senate.

Princeton University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee referred to remarks he had made earlier in the week at a Township Committee meeting. “Since all colleges and universities exist to serve the public good, we believe it is appropriate to equalize their standing before land use agencies,” he observed. “Since these institutions are firmly embedded in their communities, they have a compelling interest in helping to meet community needs even as they meet institutional needs. Unlike other developers, they don’t have the option of pulling up stakes and going elsewhere.”

Noting that “[i]f this bill becomes law, we would continue to consult with the Planning Board and its staff on major projects and we would hope to benefit from their perspectives and suggestions,” Mr. Durkee cited the University’s “long history of working effectively with the Planning Board on projects we have brought to that board for review, although frequently the costs of review add significantly to the cost of a project, and not always with offsetting benefit.”

The mayors, not surprisingly, did not agree. “S-1534 would establish a very troublesome precedent,” they wrote. “While the bill itself applies only to the host municipalities of private colleges and universities, a very dangerous precedent could be established, allowing other non-profit institutions who similarly serve a ‘public mission’ to argue that they should also be exempt from local zoning control. The logical extension of this could impact every community in this State.”