March 13, 2013

Superior Court Judge Agrees to Expedite Appeal of Decision on AvalonBay Plan

Developer AvalonBay’s request to fast-track its appeal of the Princeton Planning Board’s decision to reject its proposal for the former hospital site was granted last week by a Mercer County Superior Court judge. The matter is scheduled to be heard in court on April 29.

Lawyers for the Planning Board, the town, and the group Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods will appear before Judge Mary C. Jacobson to argue their case against the developer, who wants to construct a 280-unit apartment building on the Witherspoon Street site. AvalonBay sued last month to overturn the Planning Board’s rejection of their plan.

The complaint filed by AvalonBay says the developer will walk away from the project, backing out of its contract to buy the property from Princeton HealthCare System, if the Planning Board’s decision is not reversed by May 1. The developer wants to demolish the old hospital and build an apartment building in its place. The Board rejected the plan based on concerns about design standards, open space, and sustainability, among other issues.

One of AvalonBay’s contentions in its appeal of the decision is that the Planning Board violates the Mount Laurel Doctrine, which says municipalities are mandated to provide housing for low-income and moderate-income citizens. The developer’s plan would include 56 affordable units.

The lawyers for the Planning Board, the town, and Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods (PCSN) asked the judge to consider issues of jurisdiction first. “Claims that have been made deal with whether the jurisdiction of the Planning Board was correct for this type of application,” says Robert Simon, the attorney for PCSN. “If accepted, that would knock the application out of the Planning Board box and put it into the Zoning Board box.”

While Judge Jacobson’s agreement to expedite the process does not sit well with lawyers representing the town, she has said that she could be persuaded to allow more time for discovery and review if convinced it was important.

Extensive hearings on the issue up to this point have cost PCSN more than originally estimated for attorney’s fees. The group is currently raising funds to pay outstanding bills and to support the process going forward.

“By hiring highly experienced attorneys and experts we are helping to level the playing field for town residents when faced with large, legally aggressive corporate developers, like AvalonBay Communities, Inc., the number two Real Estate Investment Trust on the New York Stock Exchange,” says Alexi Assmus, of the group, in a statement. “As interveners in the case, PCSN is supporting the town’s legal defense against AvalonBay’s appeal with a complementary and independent approach that asserts that the AvalonBay plans require variances.”