At a public forum focused on a pending Assembly bill that would exempt private colleges and universities from municipal land use laws, panelists warned that passage could set a precedent enabling other non-profits, such as hospitals and private schools, to bypass local zoning regulations. The forum was held at a meeting of Princeton Borough Council last Tuesday, October 8, and attended by about 50 people.
Borough Mayor Yina Moore, who has been closely involved in organizing opposition to the proposed legislation, commented this week that she was encouraged with the response to the event. “I’ve heard from a lot of people,” she said. “I know that a lot of people who weren’t there watched it on TV. It was very informative. Now, we’re ready to act.”
The Senate version of Assembly bill A2586 passed 26-8-6 last June and is now in the hands of the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee. A group of citizens and local officials is planning to attend the Committee’s November 8 meeting in Trenton to express opposition to the bill, “whether or not they have the item on the agenda,” Ms. Moore said. “We have a pretty broad representation, including some Princeton University students, though the administration seems less interested. There will be quite a bit of involvement.”
Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman, responding to a letter last month from Ms. Moore asking that the University oppose the bill, declined, saying the University “would never jeopardize the well-being of the community.” Those in support of the legislation say it will speed up the process of construction projects and give private institutions parity with public universities, which currently pursue development without review by local zoning and planning boards.
“They call it a parity bill. We call it a disparity bill,” said panelist Michael Cerra of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. “We don’t accept the argument that it is a parity bill. It creates an unequal playing field. It puts local governments at a disadvantage.” Mr. Cerra called the amount of opposition to the bill by citizen groups across the state “astonishing.”
Charles Latini Jr., resident of the American Planning Association’s New Jersey chapter, said the legislation would exist to promote the partnerships of large-scale universities such as Princeton with developers and could have a “devastating effect” on communities. “You may lose control of your town,” he said. “And for the other towns that do not have colleges or universities: Be concerned.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said large, private universities might not mean to hurt the community, but they might not understand the bill’s implications. What communities should watch out for, he added, are partnerships between the private educational institutions and biotech research firms.
While Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli (R-16) said he is tracking the bill closely and predicted it will be defeated by a slim margin, his colleague Reed Gusicora (D-15), who has a letter in this week’s Mailbox (page 14), was not as optimistic. “I think this is pretty much wired to pass,” Mr. Gusciora said. “I think it’s a power play by developers and private interests. It’s throwing land use out the window. I think we have a long way to go.”
Several local residents spoke at the forum, none of whom were in favor of the bill. Resident Todd Reichert asked whether the universities had been invited to the forum, “because I’d love to hear their arguments.” He added, “Good fences make good neighbors. And the good fence of a municipal land use law provides the kind of protection that I as a non-17-billion-dollar endowed resident would like to have on my side, since I don’t have those dollars and powerful people on my side.”
Ms. Moore said that Princeton University, Rider University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and Princeton Theological Seminary were invited to the forum. Princeton and Rider universities declined the invitation, while the other two institutions did not respond.
Resident Heidi Fichtenbaum, an architect, said that lots of “back of house” buildings have to be built on campuses for storage and other uses. She used the example of a massive book storage facility that Princeton University is building in the Forrestal complex to illustrate what could happen if the municipal land use laws were not being followed. “If something like that went up in the middle of Princeton, people would be aghast,” she said. “We would lose complete control with this law.”
Resident Kip Cherry said there is reason to believe the bill is unconstitutional. Marvin Reed, former Township mayor, said, “Good town/gown relations depend on good planning and good zoning, and that’s what we have to keep in place.”
Ms. Moore urged citizens to make their voices heard regarding opposition to the bill. “If you think taxes are bad now, you haven’t seen anything if this bill passes,” she said, encouraging people to attend the November 8 meeting of the Higher Education Committee in Trenton. But Mr. Tittel urged people to take action immediately instead of waiting for the meeting. “Get to members now,” he said.