State League Opposes Legislation That Would Waive Local Zoning Approvals for Princeton University, Other Private Colleges

The state League of Municipalities opposes a bill that would exempt some private colleges and universities in New Jersey, including Princeton University, from following local zoning regulations.

“The current approval process promotes comprehensive planning and results in a better product because of input from municipalities,” said Mike Cerra of the League of Municipalities. “Public participation in planning and zoning results in public confidence in the process. A lack of input leads to mistrust. It is better to have people in on projects from the beginning. The current law requires that. This legislation seems like a solution in search of a problem.”

Currently, private universities and colleges in the state must receive planning and zoning approvals from the municipalities in which their projects are built. But as a result of a lawsuit many years ago, public institutions do not need to receive local approvals. They can go to local municipalities for a courtesy review that is non-binding.

“This legislation is swinging the pendulum the wrong way,” Cerra said. “Other nonprofits could say `Why not us?’ Why should some nonprofits get to play by a different set of rules?’ If this legislation passes, it could have long term consequences because of the precedent it would set. We expect as word gets out, opposition to the bill will grow.”

The state Senate version of the bill, S-1534, breezed through a committee hearing last week with a unanimous vote. The companion bill in the state Assembly, A-2586, could be considered by the Assembly’s higher education committee next week, and could be voted on by the Legislature  as early as the end of the month.

“It is our understanding that the bill is limited to 14 institutions with campus in 16 municipalities,” wrote League Executive Director Bill Dressel in a letter to mayors dated June 6. “Despite this narrow scope, the League opposes this bill since these private institutions should continue to be subject to local zoning jurisdiction, and we find no reason for them to be provided a special status. Further, this legislation would establish a very troublesome precedent for all municipalities across the State when other nonprofits which serve some public purpose inevitably seek equal standing with private colleges.”

The Senate bill  is sponsored by Senators Paul Sarlo (D-Passaic) and Robert Singer (R-Monmouth). The companion bill in the Assembly is sponsored by Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-Salem)  and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Passaic).

Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore and Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes have both reached out to legislators in the 16th District expressing their opposition to the bill and asking for their support. The Borough Council could pass a resolution as early as Tuesday night formally expressing its opposition to the legislation.