August 27, 2014

Princeton Perspectives Series: The View From Mount Lucas Road

THE VIEW FROM MOUNT LUCAS ROAD: The Vonvorys family at home on their back yard deck in a neighborhood where many smaller homes are being replaced by larger and more expensive homes.(Photo by L. Arntzenius)

THE VIEW FROM MOUNT LUCAS ROAD: The Vonvorys family at home on their back yard deck in a neighborhood where many smaller homes are being replaced by larger and more expensive homes. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)

In recent weeks, Town Topics has focused on Princeton’s commitment to Affordable Housing, with a “Princeton Perspectives” series of articles focused on diverse socioeconomic lifestyles and living options in the municipality. Princeton’s diversity ranges across race, origins, education, social background, economic status, and political persuasion. The series has introduced Princeton residents, some newcomers and others with deep roots in the community, some living in subsidized housing, others who purchased on the open market.

First, we met Dan and Mary Beth Scheid, who were among the first to buy into the Residences at Palmer Square (Town Topics, July 23). Then, an immigrant family from Ghana, Elizabeth Bonnah and Tony Smith and their two children, renting an apartment in Griggs Farm (Town Topics, July 30). Also in Griggs Farm, we met Bethany Andrade and her mother Karen Andrade Mims, one of the first to purchase a condominium through Princeton’s Affordable Housing Program, through which her daughter is now purchasing her own apartment (Town Topics, August 13).

Now come Colin and Laura Vonvorys, who bought their own home on Mount Lucas Road on the open market in an area where tear-downs are happening with greater incidence.

Reporters are privileged to be invited into people’s homes and Town Topics thanks all of the Princeton residents who have participated in these interviews.

Colin and Laura Vonvorys

It’s been said that with the development of larger and grander homes in Princeton, those in the middle of the economic spectrum are being pushed out as smaller homes are torn down to make way for more expensive homes. The Vonvorys live in just such a neighborhood. But if you think they are unhappy about the changes, think again. Colin Vonvorys, a diehard conservative, has a live-and-let-live attitude. Laura Vonvorys hopes that the new residents will enjoy the neighborhood as much as she does, and would be especially happy to see the arrival of young families with children.

On Mount Lucas

The Vonvorys live in a modest three-bedroom, two-bath ranch home on a wooded half acre on Mount Lucas Road with their two sons C.J., 13, and Aaron, 8, as well as their cat Tux. C.J. goes to John Witherspoon Middle School and Aaron to Community Park. Friday night is pizza night at the Vonvorys and over slices of Conte’s pizza we talked about what brought them to Princeton and what keeps them here.

An account executive for a software company, Colin, 53, works from his home office and usually travels one to three days a week. He graduated in 1992 from the University of Pennsylvania where he studied communications; his father was a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, his mother took care of Colin, his brother, and five sisters.

Laura, 46, is a stay-at-home mom. She’s a 1989 Penn State graduate; her father was an engineer working for Bristol Myers Squibb, her mother was a nurse.

The couple are involved in their children’s lives and education and the family attends St. Paul’s Church on Nassau Street. “We don’t go every Sunday but our kids are active in the Church,” said Mr. Vonvorys as the family settled in to say grace before the evening meal.

“Colin bought this house about a month before we got engaged,” said Laura. “We love it, especially the deck that was a wedding present from my father when we got married in 2000.” Laura’s dad, Jim, paid for the deck and it’s where the Vonvorys hold their annual neighborhood “Drinks on the Deck” party each September.

Princeton’s Allure

The couple met at the health club where Laura, a trained dietitian, worked as a personal trainer. “It took two years to get her to fall in love with me,” laughed Colin, who grew up in Lawrenceville and always wanted to live in Princeton. “Princeton had a certain allure for me growing up. I always felt a little like an outsider, looking towards Princeton with its good schools, its University, and its feeling of history. To some it has an elitist, snobby reputation and even though it isn’t really like that, I often feel I have to defend it from that misconception. I wanted to raise my kids here.”

Laura, who grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, was living in suburban Philadelphia when they met. Colin wanted her to share his love of Princeton’s “history, the open space, the quaintness and convenience of the downtown, activities like canoeing or the annual Jazz Fest, or the many parades,” he said. At that time, he was running for Township Committee. For one of their first dates, Colin planned a multi-course dinner with each course taking place at a different restaurant, i.e., appetizer at the Peacock Inn, salad at Teresa’s; dinner at the Tap Room, dessert and coffee at Winberie’s; and after-dinner cocktails at Triumph.”

Although Laura first thought of the town as somewhat pretentious, “fou fou,” she called it, she’s come to appreciate it. “I wouldn’t have moved here if it hadn’t been for Colin but I love living here; our property is beautiful and it’s nice being so close to town that our kids can ride their bikes and meet their friends there. And the music program in the public schools is amazing.” C.J. is a percussionist and Aaron is learning to play the trumpet.

“A Miracle”

The couple’s easy manner betrays no hint of past trauma and Laura hesitates a little before speaking of the brain cancer that was discovered while she was pregnant with her first child. The tumor was “pretty big,” she said, and she is now monitored every two years by the University of Pennsylvania hospital, where she was treated by neurosurgeon Dr. Kevin D. Judy. “He was wonderful and I am blessed to have been able to have had a second child,” she said. “Laura is a miracle and I am so proud of her,” beamed Colin.

Although Laura has come to share her husband’s regard for Princeton, the couple are divided politically. “I’m a stalwart Republican and that makes me something of an anomaly in Princeton but I’m also a bit of a contrarian so it’s not an uncomfortable feeling for me to have,” said Colin. Laura is a Democrat.

Colin served as a commissioner on the Princeton Township Affordable Housing Board from January 2003 through 2012 and was a commissioner for the Princeton Joint Commission of Civil Rights from 1997 to 1998. “It was not unusual for individuals to attempt to exploit the program and not follow the agreed-to rules, so periodically we would have to address those violators. I’m not a fan of affordable housing, I don’t understand the reason for it,” said Colin, adding that he’s not keen on the idea of providing subsidies. He’s had several attempts to run for the local council.

As for the changes in his own neighborhood, with small homes like theirs being torn down and replaced with larger and more upmarket houses, Colin is fine with it. “The new homes look nice and I am a fan of private property rights.”

A Diverse Community

For Laura its important to live and raise her kids in a diverse community. “I wouldn’t want to live in a town where everyone was wealthy and there was little diversity. I wouldn’t want that for my children. As it is, in Princeton, you have all levels of wealth.

They are in agreement when it comes to their children’s education. “We are both fans of the Princeton schools and appreciate the fact that our children are surrounded by people who care about education as much as we do,” said Colin. “People don’t just arrive here casually, they choose to live in Princeton.”

If Laura could change something about Princeton, it would be to require more diversity of opinion. “In some places in Pennsylvania, towns have a ruling that the governing body should always have a bipartisan component so that it would never be the case of an all-Democrat or an all-Republican council. In the current administration, I’d like to see one Republican — that, to me, would be fair. As open as Princeton is, I’d like to see it open to that. Just as I wouldn’t want an all-white town, I wouldn’t want an all-Democrat town.”

“Let it Be …”

True to form, Colin disagrees. “Let it be what it is, the people should decide.” But there is one thing he would like to change, the municipal tree-cutting ordinance. He’d get rid of it entirely. “I have a problem with any liberal ideology knowing what is best for everybody else. It’s conceit and arrogance and I have nothing but contempt for those who think they know what I should do with my property.”

Property taxes and the cost of living in Princeton are the young family’s biggest concern. “The cost of living in New Jersey as compared to other states like Delaware or Texas, for example, is very high,” says Colin. “I see some beautiful places when I travel and I am always aware that there are alternatives. I like the fact that Princeton has a lot of history, but then so does Savannah or Richmond, Virginia.” But while their kids are in grade school, the Vonvorys will likely stay in Princeton.