January 29, 2014

Concerns About Hospital Demolition Inspire Council Vote

At Princeton Council’s meeting Monday night, no action had been expected to be taken during a work session on the developer’s agreement with AvalonBay. But after concerned citizens and some Council members voiced anxiety about the possibility of hazardous waste left over from an incinerator that was once on the former Princeton Hospital site, the governing body voted to hire an independent licensed state remediation professional, for up to $5,000, to ensure public safety during the demolition process.

AvalonBay is still waiting to close on the contract to build a complex of rental apartments and townhouse units on the site where Princeton Hospital stood until moving to Route 1 in Plainsboro over a year ago. The developer plans to hold a meeting with neighborhood residents before beginning demolition. Jon Vogel, AvalonBay’s vice president of development, said he expects the final contract to be signed in early February.

Mr. Vogel said the company has worked with municipal staff and industry experts to determine what the incinerator was used for. It has not been operational for more than two decades, he said, and was used to burn medical records only. The incinerator is no longer on the site, but the floor drain below where it once stood is a concern, according to Princeton’s land use engineer Jack West.

“We are addressing the issues,” Mr. West said, in response to a comment that AvalonBay is “running the show.” “They have agreed to find out what’s behind walls before knocking them down.” Regarding the incinerator, he added, “They’ll see if there are any breaks in the line, and if so, there will be soil testing. The staff is very involved. We’re not quite done, but we have addressed the majority of the issues.”

As part of the agreement, officials will be videotaping the review of the incinerator room. Bob Kiser, the town’s municipal engineer, said that the Department of Environmental Protection does not have significant concerns about the incinerator but does have possible concerns about the presence of underground fuel tanks.

Harris Road resident Marco Gattardis, a cancer researcher, told Council members that many hazardous materials were thrown down drains in past decades before rules on disposal were tightened. “I think it’s cavalier to say we don’t have to worry about these things,” he said. “I don’t believe them [AvalonBay]. And it’s a bigger issue than the incinerator itself. We need independent testing.”

Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said hiring an independent professional was a “no-brainer.” “We shouldn’t have AvalonBay telling us what’s safe and what’s not. Of course they’re going to say it’s safe.”

Mr. Vogel said AvalonBay was not relying on the hospital’s statement that only medical records had been incinerated. “That’s why we’re looking for drain breaks and soil contamination because we think something else might be there,” he said. “I want to be very emphatic about that.” Mr. Vogel added that the residents complaining about the process were the same ones involved in litigation with the company over development of the site. “They are really just trying to stop this project.”

Members of the audience loudly protested, with one man yelling, “Hey, we’re residents, pal!”

Noise and dust monitors are also planned for the property. Water will be sprayed over the site to prevent hazardous dust from being airborne.

Also at the meeting, Council heard from Scott Sillars of the Citizens Finance Advisory Committee about how to best manage its budget surplus and how to plan for the future. Mr. Sillars said that about 15 to 20 percent of total appropriations is recommended as a good cushion of savings for unexpected expenditures like Hurricane Sandy. Mayor Lempert called the surplus “a rainy day fund” that means the municipality doesn’t have to raise taxes if the surplus dips too low. “With a small margin, then your tax rate is going up and down every year, and you don’t have stability,” she said.

Mr. Sillars said the surplus should increase by another million dollars this year. At its next meeting on February 18, Council will review a financial debt policy. Both the surplus and debt policies will likely be adopted as part of this year’s budgeting process.

Council voted to introduce an ordinance regulating parking along portions of Alexander Street, in the commuter parking lot and the Alexander Street retail parking lot, all of which have been affected by construction of Princeton University’s Arts & Transit development and the relocation of the Dinky train station.

“This is a first step, but alone it will not solve what has become a constant source of frustration and tension for those of us who use the Dinky but don’t arrive at the new lot by 7 a.m.,” said resident John Heilner, adding, “We urge everyone who has had problems parking in the new lot to come to the public hearing on February 18.”