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Princeton Officials Reject Hiring Environmental Consultant and Question Whether Sunshine Law Was Followed

Rendering of new apartments slated for the hospital site on Witherspoon Street.

In a split decision, the Princeton Borough Council voted Tuesday night not to hire a private consultant to review documentation regarding environmental studies at the downtown hospital site.

Councilman Kevin Wilkes questioned what authority the Borough has over issues like underground storage tanks, which fall under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“A whole state protocol is in place for these issues,” Wilkes said. “What authority do we have to enforce remediation strategies regarding tank removal at a site?”

Borough Engineer Jack West said the state has jurisdiction over underground storage tanks.

The bigger issue for Wilkes, Councilman Roger Martindell and Councilwoman Jo Butler, who all voted against approving the contract, was whether the Princeton Regional Planning Board followed the state’s Open Public Meetings Act when it added the contract to the agenda after the original agenda was already sent out.  At a special meeting Monday morning, the planning board voted to recommend that the Council hire the consultant.

AvalonBay, the developer who plans to build apartments on the site, was not informed of the planning board meeting. The lawyer for AvalonBay only found out afterward, when an attorney who happened to be at the meeting for another matter contacted her. She arrived after the board made the recommendation to hire the consultant.

The planning board review of Avalon Bay’s proposal for the hospital site is scheduled to continue tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Princeton Township Municipal Building.

Questioned by Wilkes about the process of approving the contract Tuesday night, Mayor Yina Moore said requests for proposals were put out one or two weeks prior to the special planning board meeting. Sovereign Consulting was then recommended at a cost of $2,990. The money to pay for the consultant would be taken from the developer’s Borough escrow account.

“What other applicant have we required that of?” Wilkes asked. “None.”

Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said the suggestion to hire the consultant was made by the Princeton Environmental Commission. The Princeton Regional Health Commission also reviewed the issue and referred the matter to the planning board.

Wilkes pointed out that the original planning board agenda he received Friday did not list hiring the consultant as an agenda item, and he questioned when the item was added. Moore said it was added on the weekend. But the Sovereign contract was already listed on the Borough Council agenda that was sent out on Friday.

“It seems like there is shady behavior going on here, and I don’t support it,” Wilkes said. “I don’t think it was properly noticed…In anticipation of the approval it was put on the Borough Council agenda Friday. People seemed to know that the fix was in. Clever, eh?”

Moore said the agenda is sometimes revised before meetings. Wilkes repeated his concern that AvalonBay was not informed of the meeting.

“They have an escrow account regardless,” Moore said. “It doesn’t increase what they pay. An applicant posts funds in escrow and as professional bills come in, they get charged through that escrow fund.”

Moore questioned whether AvalonBay was not aware of the meeting. Wilkes pointed to a letter that was sent to officials by AvalonBay’s lawyer earlier that day. The 18-page document from layer Anne Studholme accuses the planning board of violating the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and the notice requirements under state municipal land use law.

“The planning board’s actions are indefensible and have created a potential flaw in the process, which may undermine any action undertaken by the planning board on the application,” the letter obtained by Planet Princeton reads.

But residents who oppose the AvalonBay development asked the Council to approve the contract and said the Council should go a step further and have a consultant do sampling at the site.

“The environmental impact studies had very serious errors and they need to be looked at by an independent consultant,” said resident Jane Buttars of the group Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods.

Councilman Roger Martindell suggested that the noticing issue be straightened out before the Council approves the contract.

“I’m on board with the goal, but I don’t see this proposal achieving the goal when it the developer was not properly notified,” Martindell said. “Let’s scrap this one and do a better one.”

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.

  • I am interested in PHYSICAL reality — whether or not there exists contamination on the former hospital site that endangers public health. AvalonBay’s environmental consultant has recommended a subsurface investigation to determine whether sewer discharges or the old septic system presents a health risk — this has not been done.

    Avalon’s consultant EcolSciences states that “a subsurface investigation should be performed to determine if the underlying soils and ground water have
    been impacted by the sewer lines and/or historic septic system discharges,” in their
    Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (Sep 15, 2011, p. 27). THIS
    SUBSURFACE INVESTIGATION HAS NOT BEEN DONE. Only limited soil and groundwater testing has been performed near the underground storage tanks on the property.

    The Princeton Environmental Commission, the Planning Board, and the municipal engineer have recommended an independent environmental review to help determine whether or not there is contamination that poses a health risk.

    Anyone who is literate can understand the need for the municipalities to obtain an INDEPENDENT LSRP (a licensed environmental professional) by looking at three reports by Avalon consultants Maser and EcolSciences. They exist for all to see at the Princeton Regional Planning Board. THE DETAILS ARE NOT TECHNICAL, NOR ARE THEY HARD TO UNDERSTAND.

    They are contained in the conclusions and recommendations of a Phase I environmental assessment (Sep 15, 2011, p. 27) ; the scope of work of a Limited Phase II Site Investigation — “limited to the investigation of operating underground storage tanks and two abandoned underground tanks” (Nov 9 2011, p. 2), and in one sentence in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS, Jun 6 2012, p. 10) — “no underground tanks or contamination were found in the property.”

    Note:
    (1) the EIS was the ONLY document submitted along with AvalonBay’s initial site plan application and (2) in the Limited Phase II report the words “sewer” and “septic” do not even appear.

    I have copies of all these reports and would be glad to share them. Please contact me at assmus@post.harvard.edu.

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