Princeton group starts petition calling for a master plan pause

The Princeton Coalition for Responsible Development has created an online petition calling on the municipality to pause the draft master plan process. An FAQ document issued by the municipality on Tuesday afternoon indicates that officials won’t put the brakes on the plan or decide by referendum.

As of 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 21, more than 400 people had signed the petition that was launched less than a week ago. The petition calls on the Princeton Planning Board to pause the approval of the draft master plan to address and evaluate the impact of the plan on housing density in Princeton.

The draft master plan was released 10 days before the public hearing on the plan. The hearing on the plan is being carried over until Nov. 30. While some residents and developers voiced support for the plan at the first hearing, many residents who spoke voiced concerns about various elements of the plan. Planet Princeton covered the hearing in detail in a story published Nov. 12.

Mike Head, a Hibben Road resident and spokesperson for the Princeton Coalition for Responsible Development, said his group started the petition to pause the master plan process because many people who attended the planning board meeting via Zoom expressed frustration after the meeting about the process and what could be done to make people’s voices heard.

“A number of people suggested we should consider a petition as a way of communicating to the planning board they needed to take the concerns seriously and build concerns into the plan that is finally approved. We are concerned that there is a rush to approve this. There doesn’t seem to be a reason why there is such a rush,” Head said, adding that some residents feel the outcome has already been predetermined.

“This is an important document that will guide the municipality’s planning and zoning for 10-plus years, and people don’t want to be saddled with a document that will cause potential problems in the future,” Head said. “The feeling coming out of the meeting was that what people are reading in the plan that is published is not the same as what was being said by planning board members during the meeting. There was a certain sense of ‘trust us, it will all be alright. It will not be as bad as you think.’ “

Head said the plan benefits developers the most. “Developers and investors are very aggressive about wanting a foothold in Princeton. It’s a premium market. They feel they can make a lot of money — at the expense of the taxpayer,” Head said, adding that a main focus of the municipality’s surveys seemed to be revitalizing commercial shopping in Princeton.

“I have sympathy for retailers, but everybody that has left Princeton has said the same thing — the rents are too high,” Head said. “All these places are owned by a small number of (commercial) property owners. The high rents are the main driver.”

Head said some people feel what they said in listening sessions was not captured in the draft plan, and that the surveys that were sent out were very structured surveys that omitted some things residents are concerned about. Princeton is not a big place, Head said, and there are a lot of constraints when it comes to land because of the amount of land owned by organizations classified as charities, including Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and Princeton Seminary.

“Princeton has a unique set of circumstances. What is being applied here is a boilerplate solution that is being applied to many areas of cities in America at the moment,” Head said, questioning why more density is the solution in an area of the municipality that is already densely packed, in the center.

Head said his group also did a survey that was more open-ended. People didn’t want large apartment complexes. He said they did want to see more opportunities for younger people to be able to buy their own homes. “This is a fairly consistent conclusion,” Head said, adding that he thinks a smaller number of people think a large density push in the center of town is the solution to the problem.

“If you knock down a million-dollar home in Princeton, you don’t get two $500,000 homes in its place. Everyone knows this is nonsense,” Head said. “You get two $1.5 million homes. The demand far exceeds the supply in Princeton. The underlying cost of the land always means places will go for a premium.”

Head also questioned whether the footprint of buildings will stay the same with a push for density.

Even though detailed zoning will be passed by ordinance by the Princeton Council, Head said the “die will already be cast,” because the master plan is the document that is the foundation for decision-making when it comes to planning and zoning.

“People are very unhappy,” Head said. “We’ve been encouraged by emails from people all over town asking what they can do. People can do something and make a statement. Of course, the reality is that officials could ignore residents as well. Then where are we living?”

Planet Princeton reached out to Princeton Planning Board Chairwoman Louise Wilson for comment on the petition on Tuesday afternoon. Wilson shared a new FAQ about the master plant that was posted on the municipality’s website Tuesday afternoon and referred to it when asked about the petition.

The FAQ references the petition’s contention that the master plan fails to address the environment, traffic, schools, parking, and trees, and warns of the consequences of unplanned development. The FAQ states that the petition’s claims are untrue.

“In fact, the proposed plan is an antidote to development without appropriate planning,” reades the FAQ. “Moreover, it speaks directly, and in detail, to environmental priorities, traffic mitigation, school facilities, parking, transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and more.”

According to the FAQ, there won’t be a public referendum on the plan. There also won’t be a pause in the process.

“The master plan update is long overdue. Most of the old plan is outdated or no longer factual or relevant,” reads the FAQ. “Princeton urgently needs an updated master plan in order to successfully respond to climate change and the housing crisis, and to ensure that our planning goals are equitable, sustainable and compliant with current state statutes. The update process has been lengthy, thorough, well publicized, and has involved robust public engagement. Pausing or changing course would not only undermine the integrity of the process, but would require an additional infusion of taxpayer dollars.”

Wilson said the planning board will resume its hearing Nov. 30 and she expects the board will take action. Taking action is a collective board decision though, she said.

She encouraged people who have signed the petition or have been asked to sign it to read the FAQ and the draft master plan.

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  1. “The master plan’s approach to urban development, focusing on increasing density from the town center outwards, is the one positive aspect. Many towns and cities have demonstrated the wisdom of growth through increasing density from the center and slowly moving out. The disastrous aspect of the plan is the projected rate of growth. The rapid pace of growth, over the past few years, already strains our infrastructure. Traffic congestion is a daily reality, reflecting a short-sighted design of main roads for far fewer vehicles than we currently see. The looming threat of overcrowded schools is real, and the prospect of financing another exorbitant building program worth over $100 million is a burden taxpayers should not have to bear. Furthermore, our sewage and water supply systems are teetering on the edge of inadequacy, ill-equipped for the current demands, let alone the projected growth. If these issues are not addressed with urgency and foresight, we risk losing the essence of our charming Princeton town. This is a wake-up call for a more considered and sustainable approach to development, one that genuinely reflects the needs and values of our community.”

    1. I agree with Mr. Deess’s thoughts.
      I would add that over the last 2-3 years I have appealed to two of our Town Councilors to instruct Town staff to find 1-2 developers who will construct 50-100% affordable housing per the NJ State income guidelines. I think most town residents are in favor of affordable housing for young adults who grew up here and cannot afford to stay, and for our hard working Town staff members who earn moderate salaries. All we seem to come up with is 20% affordable, while other municipalities are able to find 50-100% affordable developers.

    2. when we are all stuck in traffic in a few months, trying to get up and down Harrison with all new cars coming into the developments on North Harrison we will WISH we pushed back on this more aggressively : (

  2. There are a lot of money-hungry opportunists involved who don’t care what happens to the beauty and livability of Princeton. Take your town back from the greedy clutches of these hawks.

  3. It is not the task of a municipality to play activist and combat any particular ‘crisis’ at the expense of current residents. Princeton will never be an equitable place for residents of any income level (nor will any municipality in NJ, but that’s another matter), and everyone knows that this is a ploy to do something rather different anyway.

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