Opponents of the Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build faculty housing have filed a lawsuit to block the project, arguing it will destroy the site of Washington’s counter-attack in the Battle of Princeton, the historic battle that changed the course of the American Revolution.
The lawsuit, filed in Mercer County Superior Court by the Princeton Battlefield Society, also claims the project is barred under the terms of a 1992 settlement agreement between the Institute and Princeton Township.
“The development, intended to provide housing for 15 faculty members, will completely obliterate the Battlefield site that has remained untouched for the last 235 years,” said the group’s attorney, Bruce Afran. “The Institute housing plan will destroy what is probably the most significant Revolutionary War site left in the United States, along with critical archaeological and historical evidence.”
The suit alleges that the construction, intended to build housing for 15 Institute faculty members, is barred under the terms of a 1992 settlement that the Institute reached with Princeton Township that was intended to preserve the Battlefield site from future residential development.
“The 1992 Agreement required the Institute to build any residential development on a part of its property far removed from the Battlefield site,” Afran said. “The purpose of the 1992 agreement was to permit residential development in a manner that would protect the battlefield site, not destroy it with a housing subdivision.”
The Institute’s plans call for the construction of eight townhouse units and seven single-family homes on a seven-acre parcel of private land adjacent to its campus. School officials have said the housing is essential to the Institute’s future as a residential community of scholars. The Institute’s plan provides for a 200-foot buffer zone alongside the Princeton Battlefield State Park, with an additional 10 acres adjacent to the park scheduled to be conserved permanently as open space.
The Institute’s plan was unanimously approved by the Princeton Regional Planning Board last month after several lengthly public hearing sessions. The approved plan included several changes that resulted from discussions between the Institute and leading historians James McPherson of Princeton University and David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University.
McPherson and Hackett Fischer jointly recommended several adjustments to the Institute’s plan in an attempt to address concerns about the Princeton Battlefield Park. The changes included: moving a screen of trees from the western edge of the 200-foot buffer zone to the edge of the lots of the single-family homes on the eastern side of the zone; adjusting one of the property lines on the northwest portion of the site; removing the compost area on the undeveloped end of the southern field and regrading the land; and adding a path and interpretive signage at the northern end of the site.
Opponents of the plan argue the project will also bury artifacts and archaeological remains under a 10-foot-high artificial plateau and destroy valuable wetlands. “The proposed cluster housing project will destroy one of the most valuable archaeological sites in the U.S.” said Princeton Battlefield Society President Jerald Hurwitz.
In 2007, the Institute completed its own archeological survey of the site. Institute officials have said the school is committed to instituting an archeological protocol that will ensure the proper detection, documentation and deposit of any remaining artifacts before and during the building of the housing.
Princeton Battlefield Society members said the group plans to separately appeal the planning board’s approval of the project. The group also plans to move forward with legal action regarding alleged unreported wetlands on the site that the group claims the Institute did not disclose when seeking permission from the NJDEP to construct housing on the site.
“These wetlands were mapped by the Institute itself in 1990,” Afran said, “But they were not disclosed by the Institute when it applied for permission to build the current housing project. If the Institute had disclosed these wetlands, it almost certainly would not have received state wetlands approval.”
The suit comes as no surprise. Battlefield Society members promised to go to court after the Institute project was approved last month. Issues raised in the suit were also raised by Afran during the planning board hearings.