A former Princeton Borough requirement that all new housing projects include a set aside of 20 percent of the units for affordable housing was inadvertently left out of an agreement that settled a five-year lawsuit between the municipality and the non-profit advocacy group Fair Share Housing.
In 2015, the municipality joined with some other municipalities in the county in filing a lawsuit challenging their affordable housing obligations. All of the other municipalities except West Windsor quickly reached settlements with Fair Share Housing, but Princeton’s lawsuit dragged on and cost the municipality hundreds of thousands of dollars. A Mercer County judge approved a settlement agreement in the matter a year ago.
Some local officials had been under the impression that the former Princeton Borough requirement for a 20 percent affordable housing set aside had been extended to include the former Princeton Township under the agreement. But officials received a rude awakening during a Princeton Site Plan Review Advisory Board meeting last week when they asked how many apartment units would be affordable as part of a new proposed apartment complex Palmer Square Management wants to build on the Griggs Corner parking lot across from the Princeton Public Library.
Josh Zinder, the architect for Palmer Square, said none of the eight apartment units that would be built would be affordable units. Some officials, including Princeton Councilman David Cohen, were under the impression that the development had to include some affordable units, and that the town’s new regulations extended the 20 percent affordable-unit requirement to the entire municipality.
A lawyer for Palmer Square disagreed and said the town removed the 20 percent affordable housing requirement when the governing body passed the comprehensive affordable housing ordinance. Planning staff members backed the lawyer up, saying the agreement with Fair Share Housing removed the 20 percent set aside the affordable-unit requirement for planning applications that conform with existing zoning.
Zoning Officer Derek Bridger said under the municipality’s agreement with Fair Share Housing, the 20 percent set-aside for affordable housing now only applies to building applications that require use variances and to projects in areas the town declares “areas in need of redevelopment. “It doesn’t cover use of right,” Bridger said. That means if an application conforms with current zoning regulations, a developer does not need to make any units affordable.
The precise wording of the change, from the settlement agreement with Fair Share Housing, from the Dec. 18, 2019 council meeting and the ordinance adopted by the Princeton Council in June of 2020: “Section 17A-202.1, et seq. of the Borough Code requires an affordable housing set-aside on projects located in the lands of the former Borough. As part of this settlement agreement, Princeton agrees to amend, or repeal and replace, the existing ordinance with a new ordinance applicable to the entire consolidated municipality that requires an on-site affordable housing set-aside of 20% for all new multi-family residential developments of five or more additional units that are developed at a density of six or more units per acre, which developments become permissible through: a use variance; a density variance increasing the permissible density at the site; a rezoning permitting multi-family residential housing where not previously permitted; or a new or amended redevelopment plan; or a new or amended rehabilitation plan.” The provisions do not apply to student housing for undergraduates and graduates in the municipality.
Cohen said on Tuesday that the way the ordinance was written did not reflect the current council’s understanding of the intent of the new regulations. “We are working on revising the ordinance,” he said.
In New Jersey, the “time of application” rule applies for project submissions to the planning board. If a new regulation is passed after an application for a project has been filed, the new regulation does not apply to that project. In other words, regardless of whether the council creates a new ordinance mandating that all developments over a certain density include 20 percent affordable units, the Palmer Square project and any other conforming plans submitted since the affordable housing ordinance were passsed are not required to include any affordable units.