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Residents, Lewis Trust File Suit Alleging Princeton University Arts and Transit Zoning Illegal

Princeton U. arts and transit zone
A group of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township residents is seeking an injunction barring the implementation of the new arts and transit zone for Princeton University’s $300 million arts and transit project on the western edge of the campus.

The group argues that the new zoning for the University’s arts and transit project, granted by the two Princeton governing bodies, was illegal spot zoning that was given to the university in exchange for monetary payments, other items, and increased voluntary payments in lieu of taxes.

University and local government officials have not seen the lawsuit yet and have so far declined to comment. But previously officials argued the zoning and other agreement such as voluntary payments and transit improvements were negotiated separately from the zoning ordinances.

The lawsuit, filed in the Chancery Division of Mercer County Superior Court by Princeton lawyer Bruce Afran, names Princeton Township resident Marco Gottardis as a plaintiff, along with Borough residents Walter and Anne Neumann and “all others similarly situated.”

Princeton University, the Trustees of Princeton University, the Borough and Township are all named as defendants in the case.

The suit is being funded by the Eleanor Lewis Trust, which was established by the late Eleanor Lewis, a borough resident, lawyer, and activist who was often an outspoken critic regarding town issues. Lewis served as an assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Insurance and also worked for Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group. She died in 2010 at the age of 68 after battling ovarian cancer for several years.

In the suit, Afran argues that the zoning ordinances are the product of a “contract for the sale of zoning to the University in exchange for monetary payments and other consideration under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) entered into between the University and Princeton Borough and Princeton Township.”

“By its terms, the Memorandum of Understanding outlines areas of agreement between Princeton University and the municipalities of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township in regard to the Arts and Transit proposal and for payment of substantial sums by the University to the two municipalities,” the suit reads.

“The University’s representatives have publicly stated that the Borough would lose the benefits under the MOU if the Borough did not approve ordinances that would facilitate the Arts campus proposal or if it approved ordinances that would prevent or inhibit the University’s Arts campus proposal,” the suit reads. “Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman has stated publicly that the University would not renew its agreement for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) if the Borough did not approve the Arts district proposal or acted to bar implementation of such proposal.  Princeton University Vice President Robert Durkee thereafter stated publicly that the amount of the University’s PILOT would need to be reconsidered if the Borough did not facilitate or approve the necessary zoning for the University’s Arts campus.”

The MOU negotiated by the two Princetons and the University includes various transit related improvements, and $500,000 for a transit study fund, with $100,000 due upon the signing of the MOU and the remainder payable after approval of the University’s arts and transit proposal.  The MOU also provides for  funding for three  illuminated cross-walks on Nassau Street.

“Immediately subsequent to the Borough’s approval of the zoning district, the University agreed to expand its PILOT payment to the Borough by an additional $500,000; the University had represented to the Borough that it would make such increase after the district had been approved,” the suit reads. “Immediately subsequent to the Township’s approval of the arts district zoning the University promised to pay an amount equal to at least $500,000 in a PILOT payment to Princeton Township. Upon information and belief, the above PILOT payments were in consequence of the municipalities’ approval of the zoning. Based upon the foregoing, the Borough and the Township have illegally contracted to approve zoning for the University arts district.”

The suit claims that the new zoning is spot zoning, with the university being the sole intended beneficiary of the zoning change, and that the zoning provides a “private benefit zone” for a single landowner that deviates from traditional zoning regulations.  It also contends the  zone is intended “solely to relieve the University of the burden of traditional zoning regulation including height, size and bulk restrictions without making application for a variance as required under the state’s municipal land use law.”

In the suit, the group argues the zone was not implemented as part of a comprehensive zoning plan or review of municipal zoning, and that the Princeton Regional Planning Board did not allow for public comment at any of its meetings where the zoning ordinances were reviewed.

The suit also contends that:

– the University’s project will destroy a neighborhood and existing service district.

– that the benefit the University’s project to the greater community are “pre-textual and nominal”.

– that moving the Dinky station more than 460 feet south of its existing location will burden commuters and lengthen their commutes.

– that the project will take properties off the tax rolls.

– that the zone will negatively affect traffic patterns, will move the Wawa to a location that is outside normal traffic and pedestrian patterns, and will place parking further away form McCarter Theatre for theatre patrons.

– that non-University residential use will not be permitted despite the location of a train terminus in the new zone, thereby preventing residents who do not drive but need access to mass transit from having the potential to obtain housing at or near a train terminus and interfering with the mandate of the Supreme Court under Mt. Laurel and other decisions.

– that the open area of the zone  will not materially increase open space in the community and will make a minuscule increase to the community’s open space.

The suit is the second lawsuit filed in relation to the arts and transit project. Afran previously filed a suit on behalf of residents and the group Save The Dinky calling for an injunction to stop the Dinky station from being moved.

Editor’s note: Planet Princeton Editor Krystal Knapp was asked to be a trustee of the Eleanor Lewis Trust as an investigative reporter because of her advocacy for open public records and the Sunshine Law, but Knapp declined because the Trust would involve lawsuits, which would conflict with her role as a journalist covering local issues.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • George

    Can you please post a copy of the entire lawsuit complaint online, and a link to it? I would like to read it. Thank you.

  • George Logothetis

    Every other locality on earth is fighting and clawing to bring business, commerce, jobs and construction dollars to their area….only in Princeton will you find a $300,000,000 horse being looked in the mouth!

  • A bigger picture of the plan can be found at http://www.princeton.edu/artsandtransit/design/. Thanks for asking.

  • More

    any chance to click through to a larger picture of the plan?

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