December 11, 2019

Town May Be Close to a Settlement On Affordable Housing Obligation

By Anne Levin

Princeton may finally have an affordable housing plan in place. Mayor Liz Lempert said Monday, December 9 that the town is close to reaching a settlement with the advocacy group Fair Share Housing Center.

Should all go as planned, Princeton Council will hold a special meeting on Wednesday, December 18 at 7:30 p.m. in Witherspoon Hall to present the settlement agreement to the public and vote on the first set of items needed to act on in coming months.

“One of the most difficult aspects of pulling together this plan has been operating under the constraints of a legal process directed by the courts instead of an open planning process prescribed under regulations that should have been established by the state legislature,” Lempert said in a statement on Tuesday. “We have tried our best to protect the interests of the community by following the advice of legal council to keep negotiations confidential while communicating with the community as fully as possible under these constraints.”

Under a ruling by Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson in March, 2018, Princeton is required to build 753 new affordable units by 2025. The town will receive credits for affordable homes built between 1999 and 2018. That obligation has not changed, Lempert said.

“We have already built 256 units for which we will receive credit,” she said. “We are also eligible for a sizable number of bonus credits. One major addition to the May 2018 plan is the addition of the former SAVE animal shelter site, which will produce 64 affordable residences in an 100 percent affordable development. In addition, as has already been publicly announced, the town has been in discussions with Avalon Bay Communities, Inc. about development at Thanet Circle. There will also be some adjustments to the new housing component at the Shopping Center — a spot that is widely viewed as a promising location for housing since it is close to shopping, transit, and jobs.”

Judge Jacobson’s ruling last year applied to Princeton and West Windsor. While West Windsor approved the settlement, Princeton did not, making it the only remaining municipality in Mercer County to not reach a settlement. The two towns had been part of a court case by several municipalities challenging their affordable housing obligations.

Should plans proceed as hoped, the December 18 meeting will be the first step in the approval process. “The next step will be a Fairness Hearing, tentatively scheduled for February 7, to determine the terms of the settlement agreement, in the eyes of the court, and create a realistic opportunity for development of the court-mandated affordable housing units,” said Lempert. “Once the settlement is approved by the court, the municipality will be given several months to adopt the related zoning ordinances and prepare other documentation to demonstrate compliance.”

Lempert said the town has been committed to affordable housing, with more than 100 affordable units recently built at the Avalon Princeton and Merwick Stanworth developments. “In our negotiations with Fair Share, we have pushed for a plan that meets our obligation while at the same time supporting the goals of economic diversity, adequate housing for our seniors, and development rooted in the smart growth principles of building in areas with access to transit, shopping, and jobs,” she said.