Bill Exempting Private Universities from Following Local Land Use Laws Passes in the NJ Senate

The New Jersey Senate voted in favor of a bill tonight that would exempt private universities and colleges from following local zoning rules.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 25-8, with seven senators abstaining. Twenty-one votes were needed for the measure to pass. The bill now goes to an Assembly committee and probably will not be reviewed until the fall.

The mayors of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township both signed a letter addressed to the state Senate today opposing the legislation, arguing it undermines and usurps local decision making and severely diminishes the role of taxpayers.

“We view our partnership with our schools as one of mutual benefit for the entire community. Schools are our partner in planning for our community, and the `town-gown’ relationship is a key to our future growth. However, that `partnership’ must be an equal one,” reads the letter. “It is ironic that the bill description talks about equalizing private colleges and universities, since, in fact, the bill creates an unequal relationship between these institutions and their neighbors, our taxpayers.”

The mayors say the most disturbing part of this legislation is the uneven playing field it would create between the institutions and the taxpayers of a community.

“Public scrutiny, involvement and complete transparency are essential to the planning process, and should not be diminished or hindered in any way,” reads the letter. “The involvement of locally elected officials, appointed officials and residents can only improve, not diminish, projects.”

The mayors argue that under the bill, a private college or institution could seek to expand and increase enrollment, which could lead to an increased demand for parking and traffic demands on the surrounding community. Without consulting a municipality, a private college could also build a new on-campus sports facility that would affect traffic and quality of life issues for citizens.

“Of even greater concern, under this bill, the total exemption from local zoning regulation would arguably extend to any property acquired by a private college or institution, whether located on a central campus or some distance away, even in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” reads the letter. “There is no certainty that projects such as these would receive the necessary public input and scrutiny. This is simply an unacceptable outcome.”

The bill is based on a 40-year old court case involving Rutgers University and the Township of Piscataway, and tries to apply the findings in that decision, which officials argue were based on the unique circumstances in the case of the state university.

Officials argue the Rutgers case is not applicable to private colleges and universities.

“While the bill itself applies only to the host municipalities of private colleges and universities, a very dangerous precedent could be established, allowing other non-profit institutions who similarly serve a `public mission’ to argue that they should also be exempt from local zoning control,” reads the letter. “The logical extension of this could impact every community in this State.”

In recent weeks, Princeton Borough Council and Princeton Township Committee members voted unanimously to oppose the bill  and a companion bill in the state Assembly. The state League of Municipalities also opposes the legislation and has argued that local input results in better planning.

If the legislation becomes law, Princeton University, for example, would no longer need approvals from the town for projects like its $300 million arts neighborhood.

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).