The Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission (DRCC) today reversed a decision it made last month regarding the Institute for Advanced Study’s controversial plan for faculty housing. The commission approved the plan today by a vote of 5-2.
Opponents of the Institute plan say they will fill an appeal to challenge the decision.
The Institute plan calls for eight townhouses and seven single-family homes to be built on a 7-acre piece of Institute land adjacent to a DRCC stream corridor buffer.
Four yes votes are required for a plan to be approved. Last month the Institute received only three yes votes. Two commission members voted against the plan and one abstained.
A commissioner who was absent last month attended the meeting today, and the commissioner who abstained last month motioned to reopen the decision, and he voted yes this time.
“We are very pleased that the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission decided to reconsider its vote last month and today voted 5-2 in favor of the Institute’s fully compliant faculty housing plans,” Institute for Advanced Study representatives said in a written statement. “With the DRCC’s approval, we may now move to complete the other procedural steps necessary to officially begin the project.”
The commission, established in 1974 by Governor Brendan Byrne, reviews development in the D&R Canal State Park and administers a land use regulatory program with the goal of protecting the park from the harmful impacts of new development in Central New Jersey.
In January of 2014, the DRCC rejected the original housing plan that was approved by the planning board, and the Institute then revised its plans and submitted them to the board for approval. The Princeton Planning Board approved the new plans in the fall.
The Princeton Battlefield Area Preservation Society opposes the housing project because part of the Battle of Princeton was fought on the land and the group thinks it should be preserved.
Bruce Afran, the lawyer for the Battlefield Society, said the move to reopen the vote by commission member Mark Texel, a park director who is the only state employee serving on the commission, is illegal. The Battlefield Society will immediately appeal the case and ask a judge to vacate the approval, he said.
“An agency vote is final. The only time it gets reconsideration is if there is fraud or a fact was misunderstood. You can’t get reconsideration just because a member of commission realizes he is in hot water,” Afran said. “A member of the commission abstained and wants to change his vote a month later. Allowing that invites political maneuvering to alter agency decisions…Clearly this change today reflects back room maneuvering. The institute has now joined the disreputable ranks of those who practice back room politics by accepting this vote.”
Afran said it wasn’t clear why Texel asked the commission to reopen the case and then changed his vote to yes. Afran said Texel claimed he would have voted yes last month if he knew his vote was needed for the housing proposal to pass.
“He was clearly sympathetic about preserving the land last month and he was choked up when he spoke about the issue. He said he didn’t favor the project and was troubled by it,” Afran said.
Afran then suggested that Texel was under pressure to change his vote because he is a state employee.