Princeton Council Approves Settlement with Hospital Site Developer AvalonBay

medical centerThe governing body of Princeton voted tonight to approve an agreement with developer AvalonBay that scales back the amount of environmental testing that will be required at the former hospital site on Witherspoon Street.

Several residents asked the governing body to delay the vote so they could review the revised developer’s agreement, but officials said they needed to approve the agreement tonight because of the tight deadline set by a judge. AvalonBay and the town are scheduled to be back in court on Sept. 6.

“This involves the safety and welfare of our citizens,” resident Paul Driscoll said. “A lot of people can’t be here tonight. They are on vacation. This is the biggest demolition in Princeton’s history. People need to be informed and people need to be involved.”

About a dozen residents spoke prior to the vote, urging officials to hold off on a decision. Some residents wanted officials to continue to fight the battle against AvalonBay in court.

The council voted 5-0 to approve the agreement. Councilwoman Heather Howard and Mayor Liz Lempert were absent from the meeting, but they participated in a closed session via conference call to discuss the agreement prior to the public session. Officials said the two fully supported the agreement.

Neil Yoskin, an environmental lawyer who was hired by the Princeton Council to represent the town in the recent lawsuit filed by AvalonBay, said the town was in an odd position regarding the case. A town can require a developer to conduct additional testing beyond state regulations, but only if the town has an ordinance on the books detailing municipal testing requirements.

“There was no ordinance to support the town’s action in this circumstance,” Yoskin said, adding that the state requires various tests for industrial sites, but no mandatory testing for hospital sites.

Lawyers for the town and elected officials expressed concerns that AvalonBay would win in court and then would not be required to do any testing beyond the minimum. Therefore they argued it would be wiser to come to a compromise regarding testing and how soil from the site is handled.

“AvalonBay proposed limited testing on the site and consultant Ira Whitman agreed to it. Later he said more expansive testing should be required for a wider suite of contaminants, including PCBs that could be embedded in the concrete,” Yoskin said. “AvalonBay was unwilling to do so and sued.”

The purpose of testing is to identify risks to the public, Yoskin said. Councilman Patrick Simon said the agreement achieved the town’s goal.

Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said AvalonBay is willing to agree to a compromise now for business reasons. Later the company may not be so willing to compromise, she said. AvalonBay is anxious to get permission to begin demolishing the hospital buildings, because contractors have done almost all the work they can do on the site for now without the approvals.

“We got a pretty good deal,” Crumiller said of the compromise with AvalonBay.

“We could not risk that we would likely lose this on appeal,” Councilwoman Jo Butler added. “We could not run the risk of jeopardizing public safety in this matter.”

“Foremost in our minds was the protection of the health and welfare of present and future residents of Princeton,” Council President Bernie Miller said. “The approach we took was not one of testing, because testing can never guarantee the site is free of contaminants. The approach we took separates humans from contact with potentially harmful materials.”

The top four inches of topsoil that is currently exposed on the hospital site will be scrapped off and segregated. It will only be used below asphalt, officials said. Where public parks and gardens will be created, 12 inches of topsoil will be scraped off. The topsoil will be replaced with clean fill soil.

When the floor drains that were connected to a hospital incinerator are removed, soil samples will be taken and tested for 13 metals. A remote tv camera will be snaked down the pipes to see if any cracks exist. If there are any breaks, those areas will be tested for contamination.

Officials said all soil will be scrutinized during demolition. Any ash residue that is found will be tested for metals. Five air monitors will test for airborne particulates at the site during demolition.

As part of the compromise, the town is trading off the former requirement that AvalonBay test soil in two locations. AvalonBay also will not test for PCBs. Yoskin said the likelihood is low that the soil would be contaminated, because materials would have gone through an incinerator and the incinerators have not been used for many years.

“If there were contaminants there is a good chance they were weathered,” he said.

Robert Kiser, the head of the engineering department for the town, said he spoke with the Princeton health officer about the agreement and he was in favor of it.

“He was pleased with the four inches of top spill being removed,” Kiser said. “With that occurring, there is no longer a concern about human contact. Any contamination would be in the top payer. Because of that and monitoring, staff members feel comfortable with the settlement.”