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Developer AvalonBay Prevails in Lawsuit Filed by Princeton Residents

A rendering of the AvalonBay project slated for the hospital site in Princeton.
A rendering of the AvalonBay project slated for the hospital site in Princeton.

A Mercer County Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of developer AvalonBay regarding a lawsuit filed by a group of residents to block the apartment project at the downtown hospital site.

Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson dismissed all the counts of the lawsuit that was filed by a group of residents calling themselves “Association for Planning at Hospital Site LLC.” The 10 residents who are part of the group all live in the neighborhood surrounding the hospital building on Witherspoon Street.

In December, Jacobson threw out one count of the five-count suit that claimed spot zoning was given for the hospital site. She said the statute of limitations had run out for that issue. Today she dismissed the other four counts.

The Princeton Planning Board rejected AvalonBay’s initial application for the hospital site in December of 2012. AvalonBay sued, and in early 2013 the town and AvalonBay negotiated a consent order. AvalonBay then resubmitted a second application with a revised design, which the planning board then approved in 2013.

The residents claimed the Princeton Planning Board lacked jurisdiction over the revised AvalonBay plans, and that the consent order the town agreed to with AvalonBay should not be considered valid because there were no public hearings before the consent order was negotiated.

“The procedural posture of this case is unusual,” Jacobson wrote in her opinion. “No party sought a remand to the board following settlement negotiations. Given the unique procedural posture of this case, there is little case law directly on point. Thus, the court must explore basic jurisdictional concepts in broadly analogous situations in order to evaluate the plaintiffs’ claims that the board lacked jurisdiction to hear the second application.”

Jacobson said the procedures used by AvalonBay and the board to settle the case went above and beyond the procedural requirements.

“Instead of merely introducing the revised plans and submitting new evidence during a short public settlement hearing, AvalonBay filed an entirely new application,” Jacobson wrote. “The subsequent proceeding involved expert testimony, thousands of pages of evidence, four nights of testimony, and a vote of approval at a public meeting.”

The group’s arguments about the rights of private citizens “ring hollow”, Jacobson said, arguing that their rights were more than adequately protected because public comment was allowed during the public hearings regarding the second AvalonBay application.

“There was no limitation on the public’s right to participate in the hearings, no limitation on testimony, and no limitation on the submission of written evidence contained anywhere in the consent order,” Jacobson wrote.

Residents also argued that the demolition of the hospital site will have health and safety impacts for residents in the surrounding area. Jacobson countered that nothing supports their allegations about the demolition.

It is unclear yet whether the resident group will appeal. The group has created a video about residents’ concerns.

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.

  • Douglas Rubin

    Especially close-to-town housing that is walking distance to everything. More housing density around downtowns and transit hubs will mean fewer automobile miles per person.

  • Tim

    Another overlooked issue here is the cost to the hospital, both in terms of the debt from the old site (since they haven’t closed on the sale) and the upkeep on the old buildings. These are very significant, millions of dollars a year. If the local residents succeed in dragging this out long enough, they’ll be putting a lot of pressure on the hospital, and in a worst-case scenario, could bankrupt it and force a sale, with the loss of Princeton’s independent medical center.

  • Good! Princeton needs housing, period. Why are our housing costs so unaffordable? Because of exclusionary zoning and lawsuits such as this. This particular opposition is a little perplexing given that the old hospital needs to be demolished regardless and the existing building is significantly larger than the proposed replacement.

  • SFB

    This is a victory for the Princeton Planning Board more than AvalonBay. AvalonBay already had approval to build. The case was about whether the Planning Board had acted properly in granting the approval. Regardless of what you think about the proposed hospital site redevelopment, it is a fact that there were countless meetings and public consultations about it. As such, there was only one likely outcome to this court case. I have been following this case closely, because that section of Witherspoon Street is my school zone. I am not surprised by this result and I hope that reconstruction starts soon.

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