December 23, 2015

Senate Committee Calls for a Stay on IAS Project

The State Senate Environment and Energy Committee at a hearing in the State House in Trenton yesterday listened to more than two hours of testimony from the Princeton Battlefield Society and its allies, and proceeded to call for the Department of Environmental Protection to issue a stay, pending a meeting with the committee, on all activity at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) proposed building site, “to prevent irreparable harm to the historic site where the Battle of Princeton occurred as well as damage to the existing wetlands.

Neither the IAS nor the DEP was represented at the hearing.

The IAS project, construction of eight townhouses and seven single-family houses for Institute faculty on a parcel of approximately seven acres, has moved forward in the ground clearing process and many truckloads of sand have been delivered to the property, but no construction has yet commenced.

More than an hour of testimony by Bruce Afran, lawyer for the Princeton Battlefield Society, and evidence from hydrologist Amy Greene, who has identified wetlands on the property, along with commentary from the Civil War Trust and local residents, convinced the committee that “there are significant issues concerning the proper identification of wetlands at the site where the Institute proposes to build housing.”

Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-16), who first urged the convening of the hearing, Linda Greenstein (D-14) and Bob Smith (D-17), who chairs the committee, all signed the official letter to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. Mr. Bateman described the testimony as “eye-opening … providing clear and indisputable evidence supporting our fight to protect this hallowed ground. We simply cannot allow construction crews to bulldoze 238 years of history and irreversibly decimate the surrounding wetlands.”

The DEP originally approved the IAS building plan, but, Mr. Afran, supported by Ms. Greene’s report, called for the DEP to reconsider their approval in the light of evidence of wetlands at the building site. The Senate committee also wants a reconsideration and answers from the DEP before the IAS project continues.

“We think that any activities on the Princeton Battlefield site should be held off until a discussion takes place between the battlefield people and the DEP to make sure they are in fact protecting the environment,” Mr. Smith stated.

Mr. Afran is currently working to reinstate a temporary restraining order to prevent construction while the appeals continue. Describing “a pattern of deception,” he contended that, although the IAS has a wetlands permit, in obtaining that permit they fraudulently concealed the results of a 1990 survey. Princeton Planning Board approved the IAS site plan, according to Mr. Afran, without questioning the DEP approval. With wetlands on the site, Mr. Afran explained, the IAS would have to apply for a waiver in order to pursue their building project, “and the DEP is vigorous in not giving such permits.”

Two prominent voices spoke out earlier this week in support of IAS, which, according to its December 9 statement, “has received all necessary approvals and permissions from the relevant agencies” and “has taken great care to address all reasonable concerns relative to preservation issues.”

Chad Goerner, who was Princeton Township mayor when the IAS project was approved, expressed his support of IAS and their building project in a letter in this week’s Mailbox on page 11, and James McPherson, Princeton University Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor emeritus, also weighed in on the side of the Institute.

In response to a question about the historical significance of the land in question, Mr. McPherson explained, “A small part of the American attack took place on the land on which the IAS intends to build, but the bulk of the fighting took place on land that is part of the Park and the 200-foot wide buffer zone between the Park and the IAS housing site. A few of the British troops retreated through IAS land, across the golf course, and through land that is now part of the seminary and the University, to Nassau Hall.”

Mr. McPherson, who consulted with IAS in the planning stages of the project, added “The compromise worked out between the IAS and David Fischer [Brandeis University Revolutionary War historian] and me, along with Rush Holt, would preserve 90 percent of the land where the fighting took place.”

Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of this country’s battlefields, told the Senate committee that the Trust has made two offers to buy the 22-acre Maxwell’s Field property for the appraised price of $3.3 million and then for a price of $4.5 million, but both offers have been turned down and the Institute has declined to meet with the Civil War Trust.

Mr. Lighthizer confirmed Mr. Afran’s description of the Princeton Battlefield as one of the most important historic sites in the country and the scene of the turning point in the American Revolution. Mr. Lighthizer stated that the Trust had saved 42,000 acres in the past 16 years and spent over a quarter of a billion dollars but that “no land that we have saved is more important than this. We want to save the land because it’s a part of our heritage.”