Princeton 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.”