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After Acting as Town’s Eco-Conscience, Breithaupt Makes Way for New Leadership

Matthew Hersh

While he abhors excessive environmental activism and worries about the credibility of extreme “Greenpeace tactics,” David Breithaupt, the former corporate vice president at Church & Dwight, suggests that there are environmental solutions to be found in municipal government.

But it takes time, and, most importantly, Mr. Breithaupt said, it takes balance.

The former chairman of the Princeton Environmental Commission stepped down last month, making way for new leadership to continue driving an agency that, he said, should be a “meaningful commission that is to be reckoned with.”

A joint municipal agency that includes gardeners, scientists, sustainability experts, and even former corporate executives, the Princeton Environmental Commission has progressed from what was once largely a reactive, ad hoc body to being one of the few agencies that is aggressively proactive, advancing policy and recommending various local environmental mandates.

It wasn’t always that way. In fact, the commission “wasn’t doing that much” when Mr. Breithaupt came on board in 1994.

“We passed a lot of newspaper articles around during our meetings, and it was frustrating because, coming from a business background, I wanted to make sure things got done and done on time.

“I just felt that the Environmental Commission wasn’t doing very much, people would come to a meeting and start shooting from the hip,” Mr. Breithaupt said. With the help of then-commissioners Corinne Kyle and Betty Wolfe, a reformation of sorts was in the works.

A new construct was formed, where commissioners could get acclimated with proposed subject matter that was set for a predetermined agenda. It was a great way, Mr. Breithaupt said, “for eliminating all the junk that went around.”

The commission then became a good outlet for environmentally concerned residents to participate in a useful manner on the civic level. “I really take umbrage at what some of the overly active environmentalists do; in fact, I find it damaging.

“We’re not for crashing into ships to make a statement. If we’re going to really maintain credibility as a good environmental agent, there just needs to be a sense of balance,” Mr. Breithaupt said. “If you don’t have that, people just start to ignore you.”

Considering the active resident base in Princeton on any number of environmental issues, but particularly those related to the municipal deer management program and proposed development on the Princeton Ridge, balance is more important than ever, Mr. Breithaupt said.

The Ridge in particular has been at the center of the commission’s focus, with a standing approval to build age 62-and-over housing off Mount Lucas Road, and a proposal to construct 158 age 55-and-over residences off Bunn Drive. Preserving the Ridge has become the virtual poster child for the commission lately, and Mr. Breithaupt said he uses a pragmatic approach to preserving what he said are important elements of that area. “On the Ridge, we have habitats for fauna, fowl, and small animals, and we have trees that are at stake with any development there.

“It’s important to hold on to that. There’s a reason why when you get off the Dinky coming in from New York City, you’re hit with this feeling of fresh air. That’s not an accident.”

Going “way back” to when the Township was considering the Acorn Glen development on Mount Lucas Road, Mr. Breithaupt said that his concern for the Ridge was not nearly as amplified. It wasn’t until developer K. Hovnanian, with a plan for 140 senior residential units, came along, that he started to “get hung up.

“I’ve always felt that on Bunn Drive, there was nothing that really stood out  even the office uses. It’s always been a wooded setting, and I’ve always felt that anything there would maintain that kind of look,” he said, rejecting the perception that the alternative to senior housing would be sprawling office space, as is allowed for in the underlying zoning on the Ridge.

“The unintended consequence is that we’re setting a precedent and I worry that by 2025, we’ll have the whole Ridge covered with very large developments, and then how can Township Committee or the zoning board say no to any of this? Once it’s been established, it’s very hard to go back.”

In adding that a more in-town location for senior housing, like the Princeton Shopping Center or downtown Princeton, would be preferable, Mr. Breithaupt suggested that the two Princetons should take a more holistic approach toward solving housing problems: “The fact that the Borough and Township are not working together on this is absolutely criminal.”

Controversy aside, however, Mr. Breithaupt said that he can look back on some of the highlights of his tenure, which included the hiring of an open space manager in the Township, the passage of the municipal shade tree ordinance, helping the Princetons cope with stringent stormwater management mandates from the state, and implementing computer recycling programs.

Most notably, however, has been the ongoing effort toward sustainability. The Sustainable Princeton initiative, where the towns have used grant monies to conduct energy audits on school and government buildings, educate residents on conservation of resources, and promote sustainable practices, has been “particularly rewarding.”

Mr. Breithaupt pointed to the civic involvement in the Sustainable Princeton programming: “People are saying that we need to do this locally so we have a healthy planet for our grandchildren. It was something whose time had come.”

And for Mr. Breithaupt, the time has also come to pass on the eco-torch, though he said he might show up periodically to make sure that balance is still in effect.

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