November 21, 2012

In Split Decision Council Votes Against Consultant

A special convening of the Princeton Regional Planning Board on November 12 had members of Borough Council, in their meeting the following evening, questioning whether proper protocol was followed because of an item added to the agenda.

The Board voted November 12 to recommend that the Council hire a private environmental consultant to evaluate documentation of the former site of the University Medical Center at Princeton, where developer AvalonBay is contracted to build an apartment complex. But in a split decision, members of Council voted not to hire the Trenton firm, Sovereign Consulting.

They cited the fact that AvalonBay was not informed of the meeting, and questioned whether the consultation was necessary. “What other applicant have we required this of?” asked Councilman Kevin Wilkes. “None.”

Sovereign Consulting was recommended at a cost of $2,990, which would be paid for through AvalonBay’s Borough escrow account. A separate, lesser amount would be paid by the Township, where a smaller portion of the site is located.

“What obligations do we have to enforce remediation strategies on the applicant?” asked Wilkes. “A whole state protocol is in place for these issues. Why do we need to create our own review process when the state statute covers this?” Questioning the timing of the addition of the item to the Planning Board’s agenda, he suggested “shady behavior.” “I don’t support it,” he said. “I don’t think it was properly noticed.”

The Planning Board made their recommendation after suggestions by the Princeton Environmental Commission that a consultant be hired. In addition, the Princeton Regional Health Commission had referred the issue to the Planning Board.

Before voting on the recommendation last Tuesday, the Council allowed for public comment. “The environmental impact studies had very serious errors,” said Dodds Lane resident Jane Buttars, who is part of the group Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods. “They need to be looked at by an independent consultant.” She added, “There are public health issues at stake. No one here has had experience in decommissioning a hospital, and guidance would be helpful.”

In a memo sent to Borough Council after the meeting, Matt Wasserman, chair of the Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC), requested that the Council reconsider its decision. He said that the PEC would make a financial contribution if the cost of hiring the consulting firm is at issue.

“We were very dismayed to learn that the Borough Council did not authorize an independent environmental consultant to review the voluminous amount of environmental documents associated with this application, and to consider whether additional sampling would be required, as requested by the Planning Board and the PEC. This review should include all documents submitted to the record of this application,” the memo reads. “The potential impact of this property is so important that to make a less than fully informed decision could risk the health and welfare of the future residents of this development and the surrounding community. We believe this review is vital to making a responsible decision on the application.”

Discussions of the AvalonBay proposal continued at the November 15 Planning Board meeting (see related story).

Mr. Wilkes was also critical, at the November 13 Council meeting, of a request to increase the budget for legal work by Hill Wallack, its regular law firm, and Stephen Barcan, a special attorney hired primarily to handle issues related to the issue of moving the Dinky terminus. “How did we exceed our legal budget with Hill Wallack by 40 percent this year?” Mr. Wilkes asked, referring to the request to raise the cap on the firm’s contract from $175,000 for 2012 to $245,000.

Council members were not clear as to whether the requests had to do with previous legal work, on issues related to the transition to consolidation, or were for work that has yet to be covered. Ultimately, the Council decided to put off acting on the two separate resolutions until the return of Borough Administrator Bob Bruschi, who was not present at the meeting.