April 6, 2016

Witherspoon-Jackson Joins Lawsuit Against University Over Payment of Taxes

A group of residents from Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood has joined a lawsuit challenging tax exemptions for some buildings on the Princeton University campus. Originally brought by four Princeton residents, the suit now has 24 people listed as plaintiffs.

Witherspoon-Jackson is home to many African American residents, some of whom have inherited their houses from family members who moved there in the 1930s after being forced to relocate from the area that is now Palmer Square. As a result of the 2010 Princeton property tax revaluation, many residents have faced tax rates that are beyond their means.

“These people have been particularly hard hit with very high property tax increases due to the fact that some homes have been gentrified,” said attorney Bruce Afran, who is representing the plaintiffs. “Many are not well off. They don’t have the income for these taxes.”

Mr. Afran said he was approached by Witherspoon-Jackson community leaders, including former Borough Mayor Yina Moore and Princeton Housing Authority member Leighton Newlin, about joining the suit. “It’s a core of the community that has chosen to join. It’s a very important statement,” Mr. Afran said, “a kind of poignant counter-note to the effect of the University’s tax position.”

He continued, “This is a group that is challenging our most economically well off citizens, telling them to pay taxes. The University’s attitude hurts many people in the community directly. If the University would pay its fair share, Witherspoon-Jackson’s vastly inflated taxes would be reduced. Though it’s not the University’s fault that the taxes have gone up in the neighborhood, the University’s refusal to pay anything but minimal taxes is having a disproportionate impact on the neighborhood.”

The original plaintiffs brought two lawsuits, one in 2011 and the other in 2014, complaining that the University should pay taxes on several buildings that are currently tax exempt because they have commercial uses and earn profits for the institution. Lawyers for the school have argued that the buildings serve its educational mission and should therefore be exempt.

Several attempts by the University to have the lawsuits thrown out have been unsuccessful. Last November, New Jersey Tax Court Judge Vito Bianco rejected the school’s claim that the burden of proof should be on the residents who are challenging the tax exemption.

Mr. Afran said the case will tentatively go to trial in October or November before Judge Bianco in Morristown. “There have been some discussions of settlement. The University has not been unwilling to talk, and we hope that will continue,” he said.