January 26, 2022

Council Votes to Disband Site Plan Board

By Anne Levin

Despite numerous pleas from members of the public, Princeton Council voted on Monday, January 24 to disband the Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB).

Some members of the municipal staff had questioned the need for the advisory committee, which is made up of architects, landscape architects, engineers, and other planning professionals. At a discussion earlier in the day that was a continuation of an earlier meeting on the issue, the town’s Planning Board voted to recommend to Council that SPRAB be disbanded.

The consensus was that its work could be streamlined, and that changes were necessary to conform with New Jersey’s Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). Council voted 5-1 to pass the ordinance, with Councilmember David Cohen, who also serves on the Planning Board, casting the only vote against the measure.

“My preference is not to pass this ordinance tonight,” he said. “We heard a lot of dangers of throwing out the baby with the bathwater [at the Planning Board meetings], and it would be a mistake to get rid of a useful body like this without knowing what you’re going to replace it with.”

Councilmember Mia Sacks, who also serves on the Planning Board, said that while she values the work of SPRAB, there is a “legal gray area.” Starting over with a new process would be more efficient than untangling what already exists. “I think everyone wants to end up in the same place. It’s just a matter of what is a faster way to get there,” she said. “After today’s discussion, and listening to community members, I feel like I’m going to go with what our attorneys and staff advise.”

SPRAB Chair Louisa Clayton said she was shocked when she heard that the board’s future was in question. “We need more eyes on these projects, not fewer,” she said, noting some instances when SPRAB’s input had improved the final designs. While some of the town’s professional planning and engineering staff are not Princeton residents, those who have served on SPRAB are residents who have local knowledge of the community, she added.

Barbara Vadnais, who chairs the town’s Flood and Stormwater Commission,

urged Council to wait before taking a vote. “A decision to disband is being made too quickly, in my opinion,” she said. “I want to know if a subcommittee of the Planning Board will be acting as adviser before SPRAB is disbanded.”

Architect Heidi Fichtenbaum agreed with Cohen that it is important to have a group of people evaluate a site plan for its design. “If there are issues that are egregious, let’s address those and work to get something in place,” she said. “We are ill-served by getting rid of SPRAB right now. It would be much smarter to make modifications that are needed and then move expeditiously forward.”

Architect Joshua Zinder, a former member of SPRAB, said the review board is not needed. “I would suggest that eliminating SPRAB is the right move. Bring us into legal compliance,” he said. “Then, work with staff to carefully craft an advisory committee that works within the law, helps guide the process with clear guidelines and standards that aid our staff in review, and does not place further burden upon them.”

Princeton’s Planning Director Michael LaPlace took exception with any suggestions that municipal staff wanted to disband SPRAB to make their own jobs easier. “From a staff perspective, this has been a somewhat frustrating experience,” he said. “We were all unanimously in favor of improving site review in Princeton. Somehow in the community, people take that as a de-emphasizing, that site review is not important to the staff. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Jim Purcell, Princeton’s assistant municipal engineer, agreed with LaPlace. “I just want the public to understand that there are a number of different eyes looking at every application that comes in, every day,” he said. “We are working every day on behalf of Princeton to make sure development moves forward in a legal and comprehensive and aesthetically pleasing way.”

Also at the meeting, Council passed an ordinance establishing permit parking in the parking yard of Westminster Choir College. They voted to introduce an ordinance creating a Special Improvement District (SID) in the municipality. A public hearing on the issue will be held at the Council meeting on February 28.