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Experts: Law Exempting Private Universities from Local Zoning Rules Would Be a Disaster for Communities

(l-r) Mike Cerra, Chuck Latini and Jeff Tittel participate in a panel at Borough Hall about state Assembly Bill A-2586.

Supporters of legislation that would exempt private colleges from seeking the approval of local planning boards for construction projects call their bill a parity bill, arguing it would put private institutions on equal footing with public schools. But speakers at a forum last night at Princeton Borough Hall called the legislation a disparity bill that would give special privileges to private universities like Princeton.

“This bill creates an uneven playing field, and puts local governments and their citizens at a disadvantage,’ said Mike Cerra, a legislative analyst for the State League of Municipalities. “Fundamentally, we believe public participation and transparency are the keys to good planning.”

Cerra said the legislation would not create parity between private and public institutions because public colleges are taxpayer funded, are overseen by government agencies, are required to comply with certain financial requirements like public bidding, and are subject to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and Open Public Records Act.

“Private institutions don’t have to comply with any of these things,” Cerra said. “Private colleges are nonprofits, but they are private. They don’t have the level of public scrutiny that Rutgers and The College of New Jersey have.”

Cerra said the bill extending zoning and planning waivers to private schools would also set a bad precedent for other private institutions.

“You could make a case for other good causes and types of uses that serve public purposes — a prep school or hospital, for instance. The legislation could be extended further down the road.”

Hery Chou, a Borough attorney who also serves on the board of directors of the land use section of the New Jersey State Bar Association, said the legislation would give private colleges and universities like Princeton University rights other private landowners don’t have.

“In fact it would be carving out an exemption that creates a separate class of privileged landowners,” Chou said, adding that the land use section of the bar association unanimously approved a resolution opposing the bill for legal reasons.

“The legislation contradicts the goals of municipal land use law,” Chou said. “The law requires private property owners to seek approvals. This creates a huge exemption. It is destructive to sound planning goals and disregards ordinances adopted over the years. It is also unnecessary,  given that private universities already enjoy the status of being an inherently beneficial use.”

Chou said the legislation creates a slippery slope within municipal land use law. “Other private nonprofit entities would be clamoring for the same exemption,” he said. “You could have a hospital with a university component saying `we shouldn’t be subject to zoning either’.”

Charles Latini,  president of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, said the legislation is shortsighted.

“Balancing the needs of the community and the institution is critical,” he said. “Wiping out the rules is nonsense. What is to stop other institutions down road from pursuing similar bills?”

Latini said that long term, communities would lose control of the ability to plan. “This would be casting aside good community planning in favor of expediency,” he said. Instead, Latini said schools and towns need to sit down and work collaboratively from the start.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said while private schools could build whatever they want if the legislation passes, the communities they are in would pay the price. Projects could impact traffic, water and sewer systems, and the environment, and the taxpayers would be the ones footing the bill to pay for improvements. Projects could have devastating impacts on communities, he said.

The legislation is also dangerous as more and more private colleges are getting into the development game, Tittel said, noting that schools like New York University and the University of Chicago are building private research facilities for corporations on their campuses.

“You don’t know what you are going to get,” Tittel said of potential construction projects. “Some of these large developments have nothing to do with the university except as a source of income.”

Tittel said the right to plan and zone, with citizen input, is a fundamental right of government. “To exempt something as large as a university — they are cities themselves,” he said.

This is Part One in a series about the Tuesday night forum at Borough Hall.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Princeton Future

    The Council of Princeton Future voted to
    release the following statement:

    October 9, 2012

    For release:

    The Council of Princeton Future voted today to
    support the efforts of Mayor Goerner and Mayor Moore to oppose NJ Assembly Bill
    #A2586. Over its long history, the town of Princeton has long enjoyed a cordial
    and extremely constructive relationship with the gown institutions of higher
    education in its midst. Comity matters. Working together matters. Large
    scale, balanced planning matters to this host community. We agree with
    Peter Cantu, the long-time Mayor of Plainsboro, when he wrote to the Trenton
    Times on September 28:

    “The fractured logic behind this
    legislation is that private institutions should be treated as public
    institutions because they also ‘contribute substantially to that important
    public mission.’

    But the primary danger in extending this
    exemption is that private colleges and universities are also private
    developers.”

    We must work to preserve the
    framework of municipal land use law for the common good.

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