Princeton Public Schools Board of Education members voted last week without any discussion to terminate the school district’s option to buy the former SAVE animal shelter on Herrontown Road for $1.75 million. The moved was a last-minute addition to the meeting agenda.
At a special school board meeting tonight at 6:30 p.m. that was not televised, the board then unanimously voted to authorize the purchase of 100 -101 Thanet Road for $6.5 million. The board also voted to withdraw and resubmit the district’s application to the New Jersey Department of Education for the $130 million bond referendum to expand and renovate district schools.
“I want to thank everyone for being so flexible and keeping the future of the community in mind,” School Board Member Greg Stankiewicz said of the purchase. “This is really exciting.”
Located just off Terhune Road near Grover Avenue, the Thanet property is 15 acres and includes two buildings with 110,000 feet of office space. The property, currently assessed at $10.2 million, generates $233,910 in annual property tax revenue, according to property tax records.
The district would relocate administrative offices to one of the buildings and scrap plans to put administrative offices on the district property next to the John Witherspoon School. Offices for transportation and maintenance workers and school buses would also be located at the Thanet property. Athletic fields could also be located at the site in the future, school officials said.
Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said he has been meeting with top town officials over the last year to discuss the district’s space needs. Town officials suggested the Thanet site, he said.
The final sale of the Thanet property is contingent on voters approving the bond referendum in October. An environmental study of the property would cost about $55,000 and would be paid for as part of the referendum, officials said. The district does not owe the owner of the 3-acre Herrontown property any money for canceling the sale, school officials said. District officials did not say how much the district spent having plans drawn up for the Herrontown property.
School officials must update the application to the state for the bond referendum to include new demographic projections and a revised building inventory. The revision of the application does not change the timeline for the referendum, school officials said.
The local planning board will review the plans for Thanet, officials said. School Board Member Dafna Kendal asked architect Scott Downie of Spiezle Architects, the district’s architecture firm, why the plans for the Thanet property must be approved by the Princeton Planning Board. Under state law, public agencies normally are not required to receive approvals from planning boards. The zoning of the Thanet property will not be changed and no students will be on site. The property is already approved for office use and currently is being leased for offices.
Downie said the school board could raise the question and challenge the position that the planning board must review the site plan for Thanet. “We don’t anticipate fundamental changes to site,” Downie said. School officials seemed to think that given it was municipal officials who suggested the site to the district, there would not be a problem receiving approvals. One member of a municipal board told Planet Princeton some municipal officials are eager to see the district buy the property so that a developer can’t purchase it and turn it into a housing development.
Kendal asked how much the planning board site plan review would cost the district. Downie said it could cost up to $50,000. He said the planning board process is open ended but he did not think the costs would be significant. The space inside one building would be reconfigured, mechanical upgrades would be made, and the roof would be replaced. The second building would likely be demolished at some point, he said. The administration offices would be moved from Valley Road to the Thanet building so that the Valley Road building could be demolished to make way for a new intermediate school.
“There is case law that the school board is not subject to planning approval. We need to address this because this is the Princeton taxpayers’ money,” Kendal said.
In Murnick vs. Board of Education, the courts ruled that a local school board is bound only by the use restrictions of the zoning ordinance of the municipality in which the proposed school district building is to be located. It is not subject to local land use provisions that regulate such matters as height, setbacks, parking and site plan approval. The State Board of Education has the statutory responsibility to approve plans for the construction of new schools. The role of the local planning board is only advisory. School boards and other public entities often go before planning boards for courtesy reviews of plans. School officials are expect to go before the planning board for a courtesy review of the entire referendum plan in July.
But Downie said the district wants to “maintain a cooperative relationship with the township,” adding that school representatives could approach municipal officials and have a discussion about the planning board issue.