February 27, 2013

Citizens Comment at Council Meeting On AvalonBay’s Appeal of Board Decision

At a meeting of Princeton Council on Monday, February 25, several opponents of developer AvalonBay’s housing plan for the former Princeton Hospital site voiced their opinions of an appeal filed February 20 by the developer in Superior Court. The appeal seeks to overturn the “illegal denial” of their plan issued by the Princeton Planning Board last December, and names the Board, the mayor, and Council as defendants.

Kate Warren, a member of the group Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods (PCSN), called the appeal “one more bullying tactic” by AvalonBay. PCSN has been a constant presence at meetings about the plan over the past year, challenging its density, design, and possible environmental problems with testimony from experts and attorneys. “We are asking you to put your full support behind the Planning Board’s decision,” Ms. Warren told Council.

PCSN member Alexi Assmus pointed out what she said were inaccuracies in the filing, specifically regarding affordable housing. In a statement, PCSN said, “We strongly urge Princeton Council and the Planning Board to fight the AvalonBay lawsuit against the town. We are considering all of our legal options.”

AvalonBay’s appeal asserts that the Planning Board was biased in its decision to reject the proposal for 280 rental units at the old hospital site on Witherspoon Street. “When the Planning Board voted to deny AvalonBay’s site plan application, it was clear that AvalonBay was an unwelcome corporate outsider,” the appeal reads. The developer was fully willing to comply with site plan and zoning ordinance requirements, it continues. “Unfortunately, AvalonBay’s compliance with the law was insufficient to obtain site plan approval from the Planning Board.”

The suit also contends that the Board’s decision violated the Mount Laurel Doctrine on affordable housing, and was not supported by evidence presented in several public hearings. The developer asks the court to reverse the decision and approve the project. They urge the Court to make a decision by May 1, at which time AvalonBay says it will have to back out of its contract with Princeton HealthCare System because of time and money constraints. The contract has a June 30, 2013 deadline, which the lawsuit says cannot be extended. The company also wants the court to award legal fees and other costs, which they expect to reach more than $2 million by the June date.

The hospital issued a statement last Thursday saying, “We are not a party to the lawsuit filed by AvalonBay and therefore are not in a position to comment on it.” AvalonBay also declined comment on the appeal.

Planning Board attorney Gerald Muller said Monday that he was surprised by the manner in which the suit was filed. “It’s an order to show cause, which we don’t think is appropriate here,” he said. Once the court sets up a briefing schedule, Mr. Muller added, the Board’s decision will be proven to be legal. “We think we have valid legal ground. And in our opinion, a number of standards in the ordinance have been violated.”

Mayor Liz Lempert said Monday a decision has not yet been reached on whether the task force which has been meeting regularly to discuss possible rezoning of the hospital site will be continued.