To the Editor:
The Institute for Advanced Study is now into the third year of its formal efforts to obtain final approval of plans for faculty housing on its lands east of the Princeton Battlefield Park, with no end in sight of the litigation and regulatory appeals by the Princeton Battlefield Society, which opposes the Institute’s plans.
After extensive hearings, which involved detailed testimony by experts from both sides and a great deal of public comment, the Regional Planning Board of Princeton unanimously approved the Institute’s plan in 2012. The Society then sued to overthrow this decision, on the ground it was an “arbitrary and capricious” one.
For anyone who has observed the work of this Planning Board, whether one agrees with its decisions in a particular instance, it is anything but “arbitrary and capricious.” Indeed, as one who has appeared before perhaps 30 planning boards in four states over a 40-plus year period, including the Princeton Board, I can say this is about as intelligent, deliberate, and thoughtful a planning board as one could assemble, one of which the citizens and taxpayers of Princeton can be proud.
Judge Jean Jacobson of the New Jersey Superior Court, in a scholarly 77-page decision rendered in 2013, held that all the findings and conclusions of the Planning Board were valid, none were reached arbitrarily or capriciously, and threw out the Society’s case. The Society is appealing, which will of course extend the time considerably during which the Institute’s plans are suspended.
The Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission (DRCC) has jurisdiction of the Institute’s original plan because 1/3 of one acre of the project occurs within the 100-foot buffer administered by the DRCC. At the behest of counsel for the Society, the DRCC ruled in January of this year that such encroachment was not approved, by vote of 4 to 3.
The Institute is appealing that decision, but meanwhile it has adjusted its approved plan to remove any encroachment on the DRCC buffer. It has submitted its plan, with this slight revision, to the Planning Board. In response, the Society has asked the Planning Board to consider this an entirely new application, subject to complete review of all the many issues resolved previously by the Board and, in turn, upheld by the Court. If the Society is successful, one tiny adjustment of the Institute plan will force months of repetition of all the arguments raised by objectors, which go well beyond the “hallowed ground” arguments to various technical issues of zoning and regulation.
Not surprisingly, the Planning Board’s Coordinator has advised the Board that the application should be considered an amendment rather than a new application, since “… the relief sought from the original approval is minor ….” No one will be surprised, of course, if the Planning Board follows its Coordinator’s sound advice, reaffirms its prior decision, and the Society then appeals, yet again, to the courts, to force further delay.
Our legal system permits the Society to behave in this way. But for those of us observing this spectacle, the time has come to ask the Society to accept the verdict of the Planning Board, upheld so eloquently by Judge Jacobson, and put an end to what appears to be endless regulatory and litigious harassment of a superb institution which provides world-class scholarship and brings great honor on Princeton.
PETER A. BIENSTOCK