June 26, 2013

Battlefield Society Setback as Judge Rules Against Suit

The Princeton Battlefield Society received a setback Friday in its attempt to halt the Institute for Advanced Study’s (IAS) building plans. The Society had sued to overturn the Princeton Planning Board’s March 21, 2012, approval of the Institute’s plans to build a group of faculty townhouses and single-family residences on its property adjacent to Princeton Battlefield Park.

The Society claims that the site is an important part of the 1777 Battle of Princeton during the Revolutionary War. But Judge Mary Jacobson ruled against the suit.

“The Institute welcomes Judge Jacobson’s decision, which confirms that the Princeton Regional Planning Board acted appropriately more than a year ago in unanimously approving the Institute’s faculty housing project. We look forward to moving ahead with the project and to meeting our commitments to the Planning Board with respect to historic preservation and interpretative initiatives,” said IAS spokesperson Christine Ferrara on Monday.

The Institute has agreed to enhance signage for visitors to the Battlefield Park.

According to Kip Cherry, vice-president of the Princeton Battlefield Society, the issue may not yet be over. The Society is “prepared to appeal immediately,” Ms. Cherry said Monday.

As yet, however, no official action has been taken and the Society’s board has yet to deliberate the issue. Board members were expected to have a conference-call late last night after Town Topics press time.

On Monday, Battlefield Society President Jerald Hurwitz said: “It was a disappointment but we are resolved to continue the fight to save the Princeton Battlefield.”

Mr. Hurwitz criticized Judge Jacobson’s ruling and the lengthy review she gave of her reasoning in a case that she described as “not difficult but important.” Judge Jacobson spoke for over two hours. “Such decisions are highly dependent on the individual judge, and we were prepared for this,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Institute attorney Chris Tarr had a different response: “In all my 40 years, I have never heard a judge give such a careful, clear, and thoughtful review of her deliberation. The Princeton Planning Board decided this unanimously and since there were no variances, this was a simple case. Judge Jacobson had to decide whether the Planning Board acted reasonably or was their action ‘arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable’. After a thorough review she concluded that they acted reasonably.”

According to Mr. Hurwitz, the judge’s ruling comes with a silver lining in that the Battlefield Society will now have an opportunity to present all of the evidence for its case at the Appellate Court level where it will be reviewed by three judges. “We may get a fairer result,” he said, adding that his organization had budgeted for this contingency at the end of last year. “We have a lot of supporters who have contributed to us from all over the country, people from Virginia to California who care about American history and the future of our battlefields.”

The Institute’s long-standing plans to build faculty housing are described on its website (www.ias.edu) which notes the residential nature of its scholarly community.

The IAS plan would cluster eight townhouses and seven single-family homes on a seven-acre parcel of land that sits between existing faculty homes and the Institute’s main campus. The buildings are designed to have a low profile and be screened from the Battlefield Park by trees. An additional 200-foot buffer zone alongside the Battlefield Park would be permanently preserved as open space.

Mr. Hurwitz, however, likens the Institute’s plans to building on Gettysburg. “This is where an historic counterattack took place in the Battle of Princeton, a turning point in the Revolutionary War,” he said. “The Institute has already destroyed much of the battlefield by building over what was the orchard, they should not be allowed to destroy more.”

In 2003, IAS presented its plan to the (then) Princeton Township Site Plan Review Advisory Board, which made suggestions to lessen the impact on the Princeton Battlefield and surrounding area. “The Institute has taken these suggestions very seriously, as well as the comments and concerns of all those who, like the Institute, greatly value the Princeton Battlefield,” states the website, which describes the plan as preserving the natural surroundings and respecting its historic setting.

The website also notes the connection between the Institute and the Princeton Battlefield State Park, which “it helped to create and expand” by the sale of land to the State of New Jersey for the purpose of Battlefield preservation.

In 1959, the Institute donated the former Mercer Manor portico that now stands on the northern part of the Battlefield as a memorial to the unknown American and British soldiers who died there.

In 1973, IAS sold a further 32 acres to the state, increasing the size of the Battlefield Park by 60 percent. According to the IAS website, this sale was made on the basis of a specific commitment by the State in 1971 that the Institute’s field east of the new Battlefield Park boundary could be used as the site for new faculty housing.

Mr. Hurwitz also said that the Institute could not go ahead with its plans without a waiver from the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission (DRCC) and that is not something they have in hand. If necessary the issue could go all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, he said. “We are not done.”

According to Mr. Tarr, attorney for the Institute, “such statements are just foolish. The DRCC recommended a waiver and it was automatically approved,” he said.

So far, the Princeton Battlefield Society and its attorney Bruce Afran have brought three suits that could stall the Institute’s plans, including an appeal of the DRCC default decision.