An Open Letter to Council Regarding Open Space Purchase

To the Council:

I am deeply disturbed that on Jan. 25,, you did not support the bond ordinance to purchase 20 additional acres of land on the much-prized Princeton Ridge, for the following reasons, as widely reported.

Princeton has “enough” open space. This claim ignores the following matters:

1) These acres provide absolutely necessary land adjacent to the Princeton Ridge Preserve that will preserve habitat for creatures in addition to us, who continue to occupy a dangerously anthropocentric world. This purchase is especially needed in light of habitat-fragmentation resulting from the Leidy pipeline invasion elsewhere on the Ridge; the power of the mature forest to store carbon monoxide makes it unethical for Princeton officials to “vote to pollute” our global atmosphere.

2) The argument for purchase to maintain contiguity of land is made all the stronger because the Mt. Lucas tract borders on land privately owned and set aside as open space. Please look again at your maps. This purchase has been projected for years; many people, including Mr. Solow, Princeton’s urban planner, have contributed to its realization.

3) The argument that the acreage provides little access for a trail-system yet to be developed is specious. Access can only be arranged after the purchase has been legally effectuated. Please remember that the trail system on the NJCF tract (now the core of the Princeton Ridge Preserve) tract has taken years to develop.

4) The development of the 90-acre Thompson/Lanwin tract on Herrontown Road, about which Council recently heard a presentation, will mean that at least 30 acres that are presently open space will be lost, even if development is clustered.  If it is developed conventionally, the entire 90 acres will be disturbed and a great deal of mature forest lost.  Making the current purchase on Mt. Lucas  would help offset those losses and will help protect habitat, control storm water, and store carbon dioxide.

5) The Mt. Lucas acres are situated at the very “gateway” to Princeton from Route 206, a “pride of place” that should be used as such to indicate Princeton’s identity and values. If a development is permitted, instead of open space, the world will again know that Princeton is low-hanging fruit, ripe for the plucking. Indeed: Princeton will gain a reputation as Asphalt City, instead of being ranked among the significant Tree Cities in our nation. A vote against this purchase is a vote for dead urban-planning and against sustainability. Non-Princetonians want to live in Princeton because it has been so dedicated to gaining open-space; those same purchasers have a sometimes negatve effect on the housing market (tear-downs, mega-mansion replacements, undesirable revaluations of property in areas whose residents cannot afford more taxes).

6) I don’t understand how PC members who just voted to put a Climate Action Plan on the high-priority list for the 2016 agenda now fail to see the connection between “climate action in general” and “climate action actually taken by purchase of the Mt. Lucas tract.” Climate Action means taking real steps, in real time, now, to control climate pollution, as indeed everyone at the Paris Conference (December, 2015) has urged us all to do.  A “plan” can take a long time to implement; this current purchase can happen now, to the benefit of us all.

I reject the idea that Princeton cannot afford to purchase this tract because of concern about future refunding of $397,000—9% of the purchase price, which will otherwise be funded by the County, NJ Green Acres, FOPOS, and some TRANSCO-Williams pipeline remediation money.  As explained by Wendy Mager, devoted president of FOPOS, on 1/25/16, future Green Acres funding has been constitutionally dedicated from the Corporate Business Tax by the 2014 voter referendum and will eventually be forthcoming, despite the governor’s pocket veto of legislation prescribing how the funds will be divided among various Green Acres functions.  Grace Sinden, in a Letter to the Editor, Town Topics, 2/3/16, has written that “Mayor Lempert has received word that the state funding will be available” (p. 9). I have never had reason, in my ten years of activist work in Princeton, to doubt the word of either Grace Sinden or Liz Lempert. It is not reasonable to suggest this purchase will cause taxes to escalate, when money to support it would come from a fund dedicated by Princeton voters specifically to open space.

As for the general budget, I will not go into detail about various climate-friendly initiatives to reduce expenditures, but certainly you should (re-)consider the following:

1) Help wean Princeton from a town-wide leaf pickup regime that costs between 650K and 800K per year, with continued inability to track the numbers for has, personnel time, equipment depreciation, etc, A change in Princeton’s leaf-program has long been advocated by former Princeton Environmental Commission Chair Matt Wasserman, Steve Hiltner, Stephanie Chorney, and me. Since you have voted (by what majority I do not know) NOT to put the matter of a revamped leaf-program on the 2016 high-priority agenda, I honestly can’t say that I understand how or why (some of) you are now arguing that Princeton can’t afford the Mt. Lucas purchase. In addition, Steve Hiltner has recently explained to PC how the municipal government may easily save 20K a year by adopting a different policy concerning leaf pick-up; he was rebuffed.

2) A new system for the generation of solar power is being installed: does the municipality expect to use all of the electrical power thus generated, or will it be able to SELL its surplus, on whatever market, and achieve bottom-line cost-savings? Until you’ve  done the math on this question, I don’t feel that you can responsibly claim that Princeton would face a long-term deficit by this purchase alone.

I am hopeful, however, that at least some of you will see the light of wisdom before dusk on Feb. 8 and will vote to acquire acreage which is so meaningful and necessary for the Princeton Ridge Preserve, for all of the creatures who use it, and for generations who will thank you for wisdom. I would not wish any of you to be on the wrong side of Princeton’s future history.

I intend to present an abbreviated version of this letter to PC on 2/8 but will send the full text to the Princeton Clerk. Thank you again for your time in reading with care,

Daniel Harris







  1. Daniel, this current Council is so completely out of it. After 100s of millions of healthy years, human impact has pushed Earth into a new age called the “Anthropocene”. Our Earth has been deeply, irreversibly, & measurably changed by, of all things, hundreds of trillions of tons of concrete. Council has actually dedicated itself to adding more injury to the Earth by adding more white, preformed concrete (which blends with nothing natural) to all of our beautiful, natural outlying roadways. Council is so proud of the “Complete Streets” initiative causing this assault. They cannot see how unsightly & how damaging this program is. These newcomers also have another “important” agenda: to remove parking for smart cars & compact vehicles, so that they can add big buses & high density housing. Our current Mayor & many of her compadres are “into” creating urban lining here. They know nothing about the precious nature preserves you wish to protect & expand. Some on Council desperately covet headlines, with dreams of becoming known by making Princeton bigger. Hopping on a bike seat occasionally doesn’t mean they’re tuned in. TOMORROW we could develop a program that reduces landfill waste, we could save the tract you mention…& all sorts of REALLY good things that would keep the planet healthy…. but, No! I suggest you work to present better candidates for Mayor & Council, to really end this irreversible assault on our town.

    1. I’m a lifelong Democrat and Princeton resident (and intermittent member of the PCDO) but I believe the only way we are going to get a council and mayor responsive to the citizenry in this town is to have non-partisan municipal elections. Because Princeton generally votes Democratic, and because significant muni elections are now timed with larger general State/Fed elections which come with “coattail” voting, the way that our municipal reps are chosen is at PCDO membership-only functions. Our muni reps are loyal to the PCDO establishment and regulars. The PCDO establishment and regulars are great folks and I vote with them on statewide and national elections but unfortunately the nominating process has not led to real vetting of candidates on the gritty and controversial municipal issue, and also doesn’t vet candidates on their motivations either. If you’re in with the PCDO in crowd, that’s your path to a seat on council or even as mayor. I think we’d be better off if our local reps had to fight a little more for our votes, and I think we as Princetonians might find ourselves happily forced to wise up about individual candidates if we had to learn about positions and candidates and not just pull down the D ticket. Some of our neighbor towns have non-partisan elections and its not that difficult to achieve if citizens want it. And the PCDO can still endorse if it feels like it, but the mechanics in the voting booth won’t be rigged to just let candidates ride in on coattails.

      1. You are thoughtful, LifelongD. These towns jobs are all about public service…they are best done by those who see service to others as their highest calling. Instead, we have people in some (not all) of those chairs who want headlines for themselves & for Princeton. I hope you find people within your political system who really love others before themselves, & who already feel fulfilled & noteworthy simply because they are motivated by that love. Good for you for caring…. because, right now, something as lame as very poorly applied “complete streets” concepts are the legacy our headline seekers push as Princeton’s future.

        1. You can google “Highlands United Facebook” (maybe add an “NJ” to your search if you don’t immediately find it) to see the timeline and story of an NJ town where residents who affiliate with both parties and as independents came together to advocate for non-partisan municipal elections for their town and succeeded. (if you do google/find the fb page you may have to look back on the timeline to 2013 to get the detail, I believe they achieved this in 2013).

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