Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 5
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
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Suit Pending as Senior Housing Advances

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Township Committee cleared the way for senior housing along a Bunn Drive parcel Monday night, when it voted to amend zoning there that would, if developed, provide the market-rate senior housing in the Township that has long been sought by municipal officials and a core constituency of housing advocates.

But the impact of the unanimous vote was tempered by a pending lawsuit filed by opposed residents, who have characterized development along the Princeton Ridge as a threat to the environment there, and have argued that the specific ordinance advanced by the Township Monday provides an insufficient level of affordable housing.

The five-hour session was the most contentious of a series of public meetings held by the Township, as the governing body deliberated changes to an existing senior housing overlay zone on the 21-acre Bunn Drive parcel just south of the Township’s Hilltop Park. The signature component of the measure is a reduction in age minimum to age 55, down from the previous 62 requirement, a move that followed a prospective developer’s concern that the age-62 market was too restrictive and that loosening the age restriction would help to advance the Township’s long-stated housing goal, as well as philosophies listed in the Princeton Community Master Plan.

There was an approval in 2005 to build 140, age 62-and-over residential units on the Bunn site, but the developer who advanced that proposal, K. Hovnanian, backed out of the project in the fall of 2006, amid concerns about the senior housing market, particularly the age-62 market.

As was the case in 2001, when Township Committee first implemented the Residential Senior Community-2 zoning district on the Bunn Drive tract, a significant number of residents in opposition were quickly mobilized amid concerns over developing the Ridge’s rocky, wooded, and sloping terrain, as well as worries over potential flooding from an increase in impervious surface upstream.

In recent weeks, however, opponents began questioning the ordinance’s affordable housing requirements. The amended code places a cap of 158 units on the RSC-2, contingent on the approval of 12 sale units to be marketed as affordable, per federal provisions and state mandates. Specifically, the ordinance allows for 146 units, with eight moderate-income and four low-income units built into the development. In addition, there would be a commitment required from the developer to satisfy the growth share requirements, as reflected by the state’s Council on Affordable Housing. However, because the COAH’s latest round of affordable housing regulations is still under review, Princeton Township, along with other New Jersey municipalities, has yet to devise a new growth share ordinance. Any builder on the Bunn site would have to comply with any new requirements, as well as providing the 12 basic on-site affordable units.

According to new zoning provisions, 24 of the units built are required to be marketed to middle income households. The ordinance also stipulates a builder’s compliance with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.

Attorneys for the advocacy groups, Campaign to Save Princeton Ridge and the Stony-Brook Millstone Watershed Association, argued that the zoning amendments violate existing mandates by the state’s Council on Affordable Housing, in part, because the ordinance was “negotiated without foundation, prior to the adoption of a municipal affordable housing ordinance” that complies with the newest COAH rules.

Princeton Ridge advocates argued that COAH’s 20 percent affordable mandate would not be immediately satisfied, saying that the envisioned 158 units there would amount to roughly 30 affordable units, rather than the 12 that are required. Township code, however, mandates that any developer would donate at least three acres of land for additional housing and improvements and expansion to an existing detention basin.

The group also objected to the above provision, concerning in this case the donation of the three acres across the street from the primary Bunn site to Princeton Township for future purposes. The agreement also calls for a cash contribution to the Princeton Township Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The group worried that there would be little opportunity to develop the land, pointing to the possible presence of hard-to-develop wetlands.

It is widely speculated that the developer of the land will be architect J. Robert Hillier, who presented a concept to Committee in August 2007 to build an “Italian Village” on the Bunn Site. Mr. Hillier, a shareholder of Town Topics Inc., is the contract purchaser of the site, currently owned by the Short Hills-based Chatham Capital Investors, LLC.

Attorneys for the Ridge group, through a memorandum of law, objected to the age standard of the zoning, saying the ordinance “discriminates against a particular age group.”

But housing advocates claim that with the Township’s now-complete open space preservation campaign, the Bunn Drive site is one of the last to build market-rate age-restricted housing for in-town seniors looking to downsize. Another major element of the ordinance is a so-called Princeton preference, with priority marketing toward current Borough and Township residents; parents and children of current residents of the Borough and Township; individuals who were Princeton residents within the past five years; current, active emergency squad volunteers of the Princeton Fire Department and the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad; and current employees of the Borough and Township, Princeton Public Library, Princeton Regional Board of Education, or employees of any of the joint municipal agencies.

As was the case at recent meetings leading up to Monday night’s adoption, dozens of residents attended in order to speak out against the ordinance. Township resident Jane Buttars pointed to a petition organized by the Campaign to Save Princeton Ridge, where over 2,000 signatures —including 1,479 Princeton resident signatures — were collected. “This is an unmistakable example of spot zoning,” she said.

Heidi Fichtenbaum, also of the Township, called the proposed zoning “short-term gratification versus long-term planning.”

Township resident Bill Flemer worried that “high density development on the Ridge would exacerbate” flooding downstream.

Former Township Deputy Mayor Bill Enslin, a longtime housing advocate, charged opponents of the ordinance of organizing a “lot of wonderful misstatements. Let’s not have personal agenda trump the community good,” he said, adding, “lawsuits delay community goals and raise the price of housing to seniors.”

Township resident Harold Loew made a plea to Committee members: “Help us to stay in Princeton. We want to stay in the community that we helped to create and helped to maintain.” Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand’s voice quivered as she spoke in favor of the ordinance: “This is a very emotional time for me. We have an obligation to all sorts of people in town.”

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