August 6, 2014

Save the Dinky Suffers Two More Setbacks in Station Relocation Fight

Citizens opposed to the move of Princeton’s Dinky train station as part of Princeton University’s Arts & Transit project were dealt two blows last week.

On July 24, a petition proposed by the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers challenging NJ Transit’s jurisdiction over the Dinky line and its surrounding buildings was denied by the Surface Transportation Board. One week later, a New Jersey judge ruled against efforts by Princeton residents Anne and Walter Neumann and Marco Gottardis to overturn the zoning that permits the project.

Responding to the first action, the organization Save the Dinky vowed it will continue to fight to preserve the Dinky rail link. Save the Dinky president Anita Garoniak was quoted in a press release saying the organization was disappointed, but would continue its other litigation to preserve the Princeton branch. No decision has been made on an appeal.

The eight-page ruling by the Surface Transportation Board was in response to a June 2013 petition by the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, plus Princeton resident Chris Hedges. The two agencies and Mr. Hedges said changes to the line should be under the Board’s jurisdiction, according to the legal definition of its responsibilities, rather than NJ Transit. They wanted the federal Board to say that the rail line between Princeton and Princeton Junction needed its approval before moving the track. But the Board determined otherwise.

The University is in the process of moving the Dinky train station 460 feet south of its longtime location opposite McCarter Theatre to a new building that is under construction. In its ruling, the federal agency called the move “a minor change in the location of a commuter rail station platform, an action that would appear to have no national rail transportation significance or impact on interstate commerce.”

Jack May, spokesman for the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, said last week that the decision is disappointing and an appeal is under consideration.

“We’re very concerned that the ruling appears to state that any local rail service in any place in the United States has no federal jurisdiction,” he said, “not only for the Princeton branch but for other rail commuter services. We’re also concerned that according to numbers we’ve received from NJ Transit, ridership on the Princeton branch is down by 11 percent. That is just the opposite of the other lines, where ridership is up. We strongly believe this is because of the decapitation of the station and its movement further down the line from Nassau Street and center of the town.”

In the other lawsuit, the plaintiffs sought to overturn the zoning for the Arts & Transit neighborhood, saying it violated a municipal land use law. Mercer County Superior Court Judge Douglas Hurd rejected the claims, saying the ordinances in question, which were adopted by the former Borough and Township, were in line with the law.

“Overall, the evidence shows that the ordinances are consistent with the master plan, advance the purposes of zoning, and that both governing bodies comply with all procedural requirements of the MLUL [Municipal Land Use Law],” Mr. Hurd said in his decision, which was released Friday. The court also rejected the argument that the ordinances constituted spot zoning and that the Memorandum of Understanding adopted between the University and the municipalities constituted improper contract zoning.

Jonathan Epstein, the attorney representing the University, called the judge’s decision “the most important victory out of the several cases that we’ve won against the objectors trying to stop the Arts & Transit project. It upholds the zoning that allows the project to proceed. And this was a product of a multi-year, complex process involving both municipalities before consolidation.”

Mr. Epstein continued, “The fact that the judge upheld those ordinances means that there is no basis to challenge the underlying zoning, which has been one of the primary avenues of attack. Each one of the plaintiff’s arguments was rejected in detail. In my opinion, there would be no merit to any appeal of the decision.”

According to attorney for the plaintiffs Bruce Afran, however, an appeal is being considered “because the evidence shows, very clearly in our view, that Council sold the arts zoning for a payment of almost $1 million under the Memorandum of Understanding. We showed in evidence at trial that the then Borough Administrator Bob Bruschi and Roger Martindell, the most senior member of Council, both said that the Borough wouldn’t get the money unless ordinances were passed. We think this is absolute evidence that Council understood they would not receive payment unless the ordinances were passed. Council cannot pass zoning ordinances in return for money, a practice that is barred under New Jersey law,” he said.