Op-Ed: NJ Assembly Should Reject Bill That Would Benefit Private Universities

Under current law, public colleges and universities are exempt from local zoning and planning rules.  If Rutgers University or The College of New Jersey wants to build a football stadium (or office building, dormitory, restaurant or dining hall) they need not seek approval from any planning or zoning  board. As public institutions, they are, however, required to give public notice of their plans and to hold public hearings. A town attorney, or any group of citizens, could then sue to stop the project in the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. A judge would then hear evidence regarding the appropriateness of the project, and would rule on whether it could to go forward. Grounds for denial might be, for instance, that a stadium or dormitory in the middle of a residential neighborhood would violate State laws against creating a public nuisance. In effect, the New Jersey Superior Court would act as a local Planning Board.

While Superior Court might not be the ideal venue for community planning, the bill which recently passed the New Jersey State Senate allowing private colleges and universities to ignore local zoning ordinances and planning boards would create circumstances that are far more pernicious. This bill would allow a Princeton or Seton Hall University to build whatever they want anywhere in the state. As private schools, no public notice would be required and they would not have to hold public hearings, as is now the case with public colleges and universities. And because no appeals would be possible, no private university property would ever be off-limits for any use whatsoever.

There is little doubt that a law exempting a small group of private property owners from the laws of the communities in which they reside violates the state constitution. The State Assembly should reject the bill.

Ken Fields

Mr. Fields is a Princeton Borough resident and a trustee of the Eleanor J. Lewis Fund for Public Interest Research.