Second Candidate Enters Princeton Mayoral Race

Peter MarksPrinceton native Peter Marks will run for mayor of Princeton in the GOP primary this June, and hopes to challenge incumbent Democrat Liz Lempert in the November general election.

Marks, a commercial real estate developer who has previously run for a seat on the governing body, said win or lose, he hopes to bring important issues in town to people’s attention and spark discussion among residents. He cited zoning, development, and property taxes as critical issues that must be addressed to maintain the quality of life in Princeton.

Zoning and the town’s master plan both determine the shape and future of the town, and must be addressed, Marks said, adding that Princeton should maintain its size and town feel instead of becoming a city.

“My strong preference is that Princeton stay small and not become a city,” Marks said. “The borough should remain recognizably the borough, with single-family neighborhoods, grass, trees, streets no wider than they currently are, no additional parking garages, no increase is heights allowed for buildings, and no increase in density.”

He expressed amazement and frustration regarding some recent decisions by the town’s zoning board and said it is ridiculous that the current mayor and council have not amended the town’s zoning codes. The town enforces regulations selectively and capriciously, he said. Either the town should enforce laws, or change them, he said.

“I was astonished at a zoning hearing for the former Masonic Temple building to hear the chairman of the zoning board observe that on a previous request, the board had no choice but to grant a variance because most of the properties in that particular neighborhood had characteristics that were outside of the zoning for the neighborhood,” he said. “The zoning board is setting precedents by granting variances, and those approvals will be used and exploited by developers. Not only was there no thought about the precedents being set starting with the AvalonBay apartments project decision regarding the density for that site, but some people also welcomed the precedent, because it is accelerating the development of Princeton as a city. The change is incremental, but precedents are being set that are difficult to overcome.”

Developers are tearing down a lot of homes in town and in many cases are being allowed to build to the lot line, Marks said.

“An even worse precedent is the recent history in the last 10 or 20 years has been changing the town’s zoning and master plan to suit the privileged, whether its the university, a favored restaurateur, or a favorite group,” Marks said. “Meanwhile, ordinary people have to endure a lengthy process with uncertain results for minor requests. A master plan is not a plan if it is malleable.”

Marks said the master plan has been amended in general to suit Princeton University. “I don’t have a grudge against the university, but I don’t think they should treat the town as a land bank,” he said.

The property tax burden is driving many longtime residents out of town, Marks said.

“Municipal officials in Princeton have a habit of excusing themselves by pointing out that municipal taxes are only 25 percent of the tax burden,” Marks said. “At the same time, they act as cheerleaders for the people who are elected to the county positions and the school board.”

Marks also said the push for more ratables will not solve the town’s tax woes. More ratables does not necessarily mean a larger portion of the town’s expenses will be covered, he said.

“That is a fool’s hope. The costs that come with greater density are much greater than the increased revenues, which is why cities are more expensive and get even more expensive as they get bigger,” he said. “The problems get bigger, and the problems become more intractable.”

Marks lamented the fact that nothing is being done to help residents stay in their homes. “The current situation in Princeton is fine if you view a house as real estate speculation,” he said. “But it’s not if you view your house as home, one you’d like to live in after you retire and your income levels off.”

When people talk about affordable housing, they limit the discussion to the creation of new subsidized units, Marks said.

“There is no discussion of existing single-family homes and duplexes that have been made unaffordable by rising land values, the rising tax burden, and the development pressures people are complaining about,” he said. “People are clamoring about affordable housing, yet at the same time, the high taxes are driving longtime residents out of houses that used to be affordable. The only way to reduce taxes is to reduce spending. The only way to reduce spending is if the population is stable.”

The school population is increasing, but the town does not have the money to build another school if it becomes necessary, and the local roads can barely accommodate the existing traffic volume, he said.

“What happens when the town gets so large that we need a paid fire department?” Marks said. “Where does that money come from?”

Marks also said local officials spend a lot of time on issues and resolutions that he considered to be “fashion statements.”

“There is almost no discussion about factors driving problems like affordability, sharply rising property taxes, the changing character of our neighborhoods, and the demands on service that go with that change in character,” he said. “We have already seen the services in the former borough but way back, not withstanding the promises of consolidation, which was supposed to be the cure all.”

Marks said leaf and brush collection and snow removal in the former borough were cut back, even though officials promised not to cut services as a result of consolidation. “The town hit its budget targets by pruning services — services that could have been pruned by the borough,” he said.

He added that town officials need to view sustainability more broadly.

“Sustainability implies equilibrium and a sustainable population,” he said, adding that the town should also challenge state policies that adversely affect Princeton and other towns.

“Everything is related. It is just unacceptable to absolve oneself of responsibly and blame things on the schools, the county, or the state,” he said. “Presumably Princeton is sufficiently influential that the town could be persuasive if we attempt to solve some of the bigger problems instead of piling ordinance on ordinance on ordinance in our little town.”

Please share your thoughts on this story.

13 comments
  • Who knows, it might be a matter of mobilizing people. This is a gentleman with an impeccable resume, it is about time that republicans and independents get involved, it might be the year of a republican mayor in town.

  • Slim to none chance Peter will win, or any non-Democrat in this town for years to come. The Democratic coat-tails are just way too strong. Dick Woodbridge ran (and lost) against Liz last time (also in a Presidential election year), and he was well connected, well liked and had previously served the pre-consolidation municipality with decent reviews. Arguably more credentials than Liz, and among those paying attention to the local race, had a lot of bi-partisan support (many yards had National & State Democratic candidate yard signs along side Woodbridge for Mayor signs). I had an opportunity to do informal canvass of a bunch of parents of elementary school kids who had moved into Princeton within 3-5 years of the 2012 race, primarily motivated by the school district. I spoke to several politically thoughtful and informed (on national issues) parents who specifically told me that they did not know much or anything about the municipal candidates because they were newer to town and busy with kids, etc, did not have time to dive in to municipal issues and therefore would just trust the party line and vote straight down the line because of a negative view of Republicans from national policies/issues. I know that there is always the coat-tail effect, but I was generally surprised at how coat tails were operating among a good number of people who seemed to be pretty deliberative & thoughtful about their participation in elections. (If you are reading the comments to this article just understand that you are more engaged and knowledgeable of town political matters than most of those eligible to cast votes that decide who your mayor will be). I continued to ask around town about this and from my “unscientific research” on this I now believe that the majority of Princeton voters in a Presidential elections are not paying much if any attention to the municipal offices. Of course there is a good core of engaged Princetonians who do very much care about the municipal outcomes (but given the pool of students who can vote here and other factors such as the “new resident busy parent”, etc) I just do not believe it is anywhere near the majority of voters who are really making a decision about the actual local candidates as much as expressly trust in the national party. So effectively, to become mayor, you aren’t really trying to win individual voters as much as you are trying to get with that Democrat coat-tail. Elected Democratic candidates/officials become more accountable to the local Democratic party inclubbers than to the general electorate in town – the big D nomination guarantees the win. I’m glad Princeton tends to be a big D town, and I myself vote big D in virtually every state and national election with vigor, but I think we need more accountability to residents, especially residents who are taking the time to be engaged in local issues, at the local office level.
    Princeton is ripe and ready for us to move to non-partisan municipal elections. Other towns in NJ have happily made this move. Some of our neighboring towns have non-partisan municipal elections. Candidates would still be free to tell us who they like in national and state elections and local party groups could still endorse who they like, but putting the town races on the ballot in their own “stripe”, with space for Republican and Independent candidates in a place free from coattails, may just shake things up a little around here in a good way. (…it was not a coincidence that after consolidation the Dems in power made sure that mayoral elections would coincide with Presidential elections going forward.) Citizens would have to start paying more attention than just relying on negative/positive feeling about the state or national party, and the candidates themselves would have to reach out and convince voters that they have something to offer this town other than who they like for President. -LifeLongPrincetonian & Democrat

  • You know, Pat, this candidate grew up here and lives here. Peter Marks understands what we already have in Princeton & values it. The problems we have with zoning have been created by advisors who are town employees. They don’t live in Princeton. They don’t spend their free time here. They really could care less whether it’s easy or nice for residents to live here. Their approach is supported by our Mayor from Cali, who clearly doesn’t understand what’s beautiful or valuable here. She values what’s newsworthy, what the University wants, and what her privileged friends want (and many of them are transplants too, with no appreciation for local culture, needs, and issues). That’s why town governance is failing so many here. The planned urbanization of Princeton is repulsive to many … and many of us don’t feel sorry for the wealthy who openly worry about who will wait on them in restaurants, and whine about where their “service workers” will live. Businesses and wealthy residents should open their wallets to hire college students, grad student spouses, local citizens, and others who can’t be exploited… because there are labor laws & slavery was abolished in the US long ago.

  • Thank you for your candidacy Peter!
    After reading all of these I am in agreeing with everything you said, furthermore I can’t recall a single ordinance brought by Princeton council in the last 6 or so years which actually improved the life of all of the Princeton (and especially Princeton Borough) residents.

  • Not Afraid to Split… & Bill, Certainly agree, especially in a week when Council is voting to pay-out $200,000.00 to stop a lawsuit for their mismanagement once again.

  • I agree that Peter is speaking the point of view of so many people I hear discussing life in Princeton. Hopefully this mayoral race will address the constant complaint I hear from so many of my Princeton neighbors, “When the kids graduate from high school, we’ll probably move out of town or into a smaller place where we can afford the property taxes.” We need this problem addressed and perhaps having contested elections in Princeton this year we can see this topic raised regularly. To ensure this, when speaking with the candidates, we should start out by asking them how they propose to reduce property taxes.

  • I am happy to see somebody challenging the incumbent mayor. After Patrick Simon decided not to run, I was devastated. I vote for the person and this gentleman has given a good illustration of his goals. I hope the GOP people in town vote even when they think that there is no chance. I hope that people vote for the best candidate and not for a political party or a gender.

  • It takes a brave man to run as a republican in Princeton, especially in a year when that party on the national level is a freak show. I applaud Marks. He has illustrated in this small interview a true grasp of the issues and has articulated the POV of many tax-payers bringing home modest and even slightly above modest incomes. This Dem will be listening in earnest to what he has to say.

  • Delighted that Peter Marks is running, even though I agree with him about almost nothing. Liz deserves a proper challenge. Now we will have two mayoral candidates running on a vision of a ‘small town’ Princeton with very limited provision of housing (affordable or otherwise) for the thousands of people who work here and serve local residents.

  • A breath of fresh air, it will be good to see the stagnation of the governing body stirred up.

    Is Princeton ready for a change to the status quo?

  • I LOVE his comments about zoning. I agree with them completely. I likely will be voting for Peter Marks for mayor based on this extremely important issue (preserving the small-town feel of the inner part of Princeton, which currently the zoning board is utterly failing to do).

  • A recent example is the Triumph move to the old PO. 290+ seats that require no additional parking – huh?

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