State Assemblymen Jack Ciattarelli and Reed Gusciora voiced strong opposition Tuesday night to a bill that would exempt private colleges and universities like Rider and Princeton from having to follow local land use laws for construction projects.
“From the first moment I found out about this bill, I’ve opposed it,” Ciattarellii said. “It is not because I take issue with Princeton University or my alma mater, Seton Hall. As a former local official, I think the legislation is taking bad public policy and making it worse.”
Ciattarelli, a 16th District Republican from Hillsborough, and Gusciora, a Democrat who now serves in the 15th District, addressed an audience of about 50 people who attended a forum on the issue at Princeton Borough Hall. Ciattarelli said a court decision from 1972 allowing Rutgers University and other public schools to bypass local zoning approvals was based on a technicality. The courts ruled that because state colleges are instrumentalities of the state, they did not need local approval for projects.
“Some representatives from private universities have visited my offices and expressed disappointment with my position,” Ciattarelli said. “But there is a fiduciary duty to the community and citizens, and the only way to fulfill it is through the local land use board when comes to projects. I especially feel strongly about this when a university is expanding beyond its existing footprint.”
Ciattarelli has written newspaper editorials on the subject and said he is monitoring the bill closely. The bill could be discussed by the assembly education committee as early as Nov. 8. He intends to testify against the bill at any hearings.
“It’s a slippery slope,” he said of the bill. “Where would the exemptions end? Next it would be private high schools, and then hospitals.”
Ciattarelli said he hopes the bill, which has bipartisan support, will “go nowhere” and said it it were voted on today, he thinks it would be defeated by a slim margin.
Gusciora was not as optimistic, and said developers and other private interests may be at play in addition to lobbying by private colleges.
“Those who support it find the parity argument very compelling,” Gusciora said. “Those who oppose it are fearful that this is the beginning of a snowball. Where do you draw the line?…But the bill seems wired to pass on both sides of the isle. I’m not hopeful it can readily be defeated. It will mean more litigation for towns.”
Gusciora, who still owns property in Princeton, said under the bill, Princeton University could buy his half acre of land and do whatever it wants with it.
“If I sold the property to the university, they could build a dorm right on Route 27,” he said. “I don’t agree with the parity argument. The state government is the check on public colleges. The state can cut funding to Rutgers. It can’t cut funding to Princeton or Seton Hall. Princeton has more money than the state. It can buy all the public schools if it wants.”
“Good luck against Princeton University lawyers,” Gusciora said. “We’ve already seen three examples in Princeton – the arts and transit project, the Princeton Battlefield Institute for Advanced Study faculty housing, and moving the Dinky station. All three had some public input. Now that would be taken away. The Institute could build any kind of dorms it wants on the battlefield with no public input. It’s just insane. The university could move the Dinky back and forth with no local input at all. The legislation would have a real detrimental effect. It is a shame. Outside of a few bumps, the town gown relationship with Princeton has been pretty good, but this makes things more divisive.”
People need to raise awareness about the problems with the bill, be vocal and make as much noise as possible about it, Gusciora said.
“If it weren’t for citizen activism, the Pinelands would have been paved over,” he said. “Just because it seems like it is a done deal does not mean there is no chance to undo it.”
Mike Cerra, a legislative analyst with the state League of Municipalities, said in his 16 years working for the agency, he has never seen quite so much citizen interest in a bill. Groups opposing the bill have formed in Hoboken, South Orange, and Princeton.
“If you would have told me in June that there would be such an outpouring of interest, I would have been skeptical,” Cerra said. “Citizen groups formed, and formed quickly. I think that’s why the bill has not been scheduled yet…If you haven’t gotten involved yet, I strongly encourage you to do so and reach out to your legislators.”
It is still unclear what some Assembly members positions are on the bill, which passed in the state Senate in June. Assemblywomen Donna Simon and Bonnie Watson Coleman have not taken positions on the bill so far.
This is the second article in a three-part series on the public forum at Borough Hall Tuesday night.