Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman has rejected a request from Princeton Borough officials asking that the university oppose legislation related to the development of private colleges and universities in the state.
A bill that was passed in the state Senate earlier this year and is expected to be considered by the Assembly this fall would allow private colleges and universities to build without requiring any planning or zoning approvals from the towns where the properties are located. Public colleges and universities do not need approvals, but public institutions are overseen by public agencies like the state or counties.
The Borough Council wrote a letter to Tilghman earlier this month asking that the university show its solidarity with the town by opposing the legislation. Tilghman rejected the idea, citing recent experiences with Borough officials.
“A number of our recent experiences with the governing body of the Borough of Princeton give us concern about how mechanisms that have worked in the past will work in the future,” Tighlman wrote in a letter to the Borough Council dated Sept. 19. “It took more than a year of persistent requests before the Borough Council agreed to consider rezoning to permit the development of university lands to address one of the university’s highest priorities and provide multiple benefits to the community and the state.”
Tilghman claimed that this spring Borough Council members discussed how they could exercise greater political control over planning board members on planning issues related to the university. She also argued the legislation would help private universities achieve parity with their public counterparts in the state.
“Given Princeton University’s 250-year history of being both a responsible developer and a very good community citizen, I was astonished by the belief of Princeton Borough that the adoption of Assembly Bill No. 2586 could subject the community to `a wide variety of threats, including to public safety and health, to the local economy and quality of life, and to the environment’, Tilghman wrote. “Princeton is our home and will always be our home, so whether this legislation is adopted or not, we would never jeopardize the well-being of our community. If the legislation is adopted, we would continue to consult with local officials and residents before proceeding with any major project, and would continue to address community needs as well as university needs as fully as we can.”
Borough Mayor Yina Moore, a Princeton University alumna, responded to Tilghman’s letter by saying that while the university has been a good citizen for much of its history, there have been instances where university development pursuits and decisions have not been in the best interest of the community. She cited the recent debate about moving the Dinky train, and the university’s history with the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Princeton’s historic African-American neighborhood.
“To use current examples, it remains doubtful that the new location for the Lewis Arts Center on Alexander Road is best for the community,” Moore said. “It remains unsubstantiated that moving the Dinky Station further away from all of Princeton’s residents, whether they access it by car or foot, is in the best interest of the community. What would be left of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood without a court’s intervention of officials acting in the interest of the university?”
Moore argued that some state legislators and officials would challenge the notion that public colleges and universities are not having adverse impacts on the communities within which they reside because of the development leeway they are given. She said the proposed legislation is problematic because it removes officials and citizens from the equation in terms of deciding what is best for the community, and argued the bill circumvents municipal land use law, which is intended to provide a framework for good planning and a process to adjudicate good decision-making.
“A-2586 would essentially allow for unbridled development by the university,” Moore said. “There are no policies that automatically ensure that fire and rescue safety can be assured. The budgets with which we currently operate can only afford unpaid first response volunteer departments and related limited equipment. Increased local traffic and accelerated wear and tear on our infrastructure are some of the impacts to safety and quality of life.”
Moore acknowledged that the university is a significant contributor to community life that will not be leaving town.
“Our citizens are equally integral and long term members of the community,” Moore said. “It is primarily our resident property taxpayer that will be unduly burdened with the additional demands for services and resources that unplanned growth generates. The taxpayer, no matter which community, will face the challenge of making ends meet with the potential of more land being taken off of the tax rolls.”
Moore said the municipal review processes in effect today are in place to ensure a community’s ability to plan for a sustainable balance. Residents in several communities have signed on to a petition opposing the legislation.
“This bill would be akin to the municipality having a role in the decision of the Princeton University board of trustees in setting the university’s financial policies or curriculum,” she said. “Clearly, that would be inappropriate, as our roles, constituents, and goals are very different. While I am disappointed that Princeton University will not take a firm stand with the community in opposition to proposed Assembly Bill 2586, the fact remains that, what may be good for Princeton University is not always good for Princeton, New Jersey.”