Princeton Residents Voice Concerns About Bill Exempting Private Universities from Following Local Land Use Laws

Princeton residents expressed their concerns at a public forum Tuesday night about proposed legislation that would exempt private colleges and universities from begin required to follow local land use laws for construction projects.

Resident Heidi Fichtenbaum pointed to a gigantic book storage facility Princeton University is building at its Forrestal Village campus as an example of what could happen if local zoning can be ignored.

“If something like that went up in the middle of Princeton, people would be aghast,” Fichtenbaum said. “With this law we would lose complete control. As it is, these guys are not paying property taxes on all their land, yet they take advantage of the sewer system, the firefighters, the police, the streets..all the infrastructure is paid for by the taxpayers, and the universities take advantage of that.”

“That’s not to say that these universities are Darth Vader or anything, because they bring a lot of wonderful things to the community in terms of education and culture, but they’re not paying their fair share as it is,” Fichtenbaum said. “Projects might generate jobs, but they could also potentially cost municipalities a lot of money.”

Princeton Borough resident Todd Reichert questioned the logic of the legislation and noted that officials from universities like Princeton have been fairly quiet on the issue. Her said he would like to hear arguments from school officials on why the legislation should be approved.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” he said. “And the good fence of a municipal land use law provides the kind of protection that I as a non-17-billion-dollar-endowed resident would like to have on my side, since I don’t have those dollars and powerful people on my side.”

Princeton University officials support the legislation, and University President Shirley Tilghman has said the school would never jeopardize the well-being of the community.

“I believe this legislation actually does jeopardize the town’s well being,” resident Joe McGeady said. “I believe the Princeton administration is delusional if they think this bill would lead to a sustainable and enriching environment for us all. It has been pointed out by others that no urban planning department would be in favor of legislation that lets one institution decide the fate of a town.”

McGeady said the university sometimes behaves like a corporation or a mutual fund and will do what is in its best interest.

“I have watched as those chosen to represent this university come to town meetings like the  lobbyist of any powerful corporation, with only their own agenda in mind,” he said, adding that Princeton has been unwilling to compromise at all on certain issues like moving the Dinky station.

“We have a situation where there would be taxation without representation,” he said. “Taxpayers would have no say concerning the future of their town.”

Borough Councilman Roger Martindell said the bill could destroy the fabric of the community. Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad said it would set a precedent for other nonprofits to ask for zoning and planning board exemption.

“This legislation is completely anti-democratic,” Councilman Kevin Wilkes said. “It cuts communities off at the knee caps in terms of how neighborhoods can respond to unchecked growth. It is repugnant to me. It is a cheap stab in the heart of democracy.”

Supporters of the bill say the legislation would allow them to move forward more quickly with construction projects and avoid delays. Borough Mayor Yina Moore said in the state of New Jersey, time limits are set for deciding on projects once plans have been filed.

At the end of the public forum, which was attended by about 50 people, officials and residents asked what they should do to try to get the Assembly bill defeated.

“We need a grassroots organization that will get people on buses, traveling down to the Statehouse in Trenton,” resident Kate Warren said.

McGeady said many people in town are connected in some way to the university and are therefore afraid to speak up. “That’s the way a factory town works,” he said, arguing that the issue is just a microcosm of what is wrong with the nation. “This bill is symbolic of a lot of bigger issues, ” he said. “It’s about putting power and money above ordinary people.”

This is the third and final story in a series about the public forum at Borough Hall Tuesday night.