August 1, 2012

Petition Opposes Bill Allowing Private Colleges To Bypass Zoning Laws

A petition to prevent legislation that would exempt New Jersey’s private colleges and universities from municipal land use oversight is circulating among members of local government and the public. As of press time on Tuesday, more than 600 signatures had been collected on the petition created by the American Planning Association’s New Jersey Chapter, with many local names on the list.

Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore brought up the petition at last week’s meeting of Borough Council. She urged members of the public to sign the document, which is accessible through the Princeton Borough website or at and to contact members of the Assembly committee to which the bill has been referred. “We need to oppose this bill and assure that our community has a balance and diversity,” she said.

Mayor Moore, Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner, and the mayors of nine other New Jersey towns that are home to private colleges sent an open letter last month to the state Senate, encouraging them to reject the bill. Known formally as New Jersey Assembly Bill Number 2586 and Senate Bill Number 1534, the measure would allow institutions such as Princeton University to bypass local zoning codes under the Municipal Land Use Law. The Senate version of the bill passed on June 28, and the Assembly bill has been referred to that body’s Higher Education Committee.

A form letter on the website that citizens can send to legislators reads, “We call on members of the New Jersey Legislature to oppose this bill, which undermines the role and voice of citizens and taxpayers in the future of their own towns Й A-2586 would establish a very troublesome precedent for communities across the State.”

The legislation has been opposed by The New Jersey State League of Municipalities. Those opposed say that the local approval model is best because it promotes collaborative planning with input from the public and results in more public confidence in the process. Private universities and colleges in New Jersey currently need planning and zoning approvals from their municipalities, while public institutions do not. Public institutions can go to local municipalities for a courtesy review, which is non-binding.

Bob Durkee, Princeton University Vice-President and Secretary, said this week that private institutions such as Princeton University have a strong interest in keeping communities attractive and appealing, and are therefore unlikely to build developments that detract from them. “We understand the arguments for the bill,” he said. “But we will be responsible developers whether this bill passes or not.”

He added, “I know there is concern about opening the door to potential development that would be contrary to the interest of the community. But these institutions are all firmly embedded in their communities and care deeply about quality of life in those communities. It’s very important in recruiting faculty and staff. It’s not likely that any of them would propose developments that wouldn’t enhance the quality of life in their communities.”

Mr. Durkee pointed out that while the University’s experiences in dealing with the Princeton Regional Planning Board have been positive, recent efforts to achieve zoning approval from Borough Council, for the planned arts and transit neighborhood, have been difficult.

Mayor Goerner commented, “Working together with people and living together in one community can be difficult. But it doesn’t mean you change the rules to make it easier for you. That’s what democracy is all about — coming together and coming to solutions that work. The fact is that we are a community and will continue to be. This bill would change that dynamic and have very negative consequences on our town.”