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Planning board chairwoman responds to Princeton Board of Education letter about the Master Plan and PILOT agreements

Princeton Planning Board Chairwoman Louise Wilson sent a letter to the school board on Wednesday night responding to a letter the school board sent the board and the Princeton Council regarding the draft Master Plan for the municipality.

A Master Plan must be reviewed every 10 years. the last time the Princeton Master Plan was reviewed was in 2018. The town released a draft of the proposed new Master Plan just 10 days before the public hearing on the plan.

According to the school board, district officials and school board members did not have the proper chance to weigh in on the Master Plan. Previously, the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission also said it did not have the proper opportunity to weigh in on the Master Plan.

As of Thursday, almost 1,000 residents have signed a petition calling for a pause on adopting the Master Plan. The public hearing on the Master Plan will continue at 7 p.m. tonight, Nov. 30, via Zoom.

Regarding the school board’s claim about a lack of input, Wilson said the Princeton School Board’s representative on the Master Plan Steering Committee provided valuable insight and perspective as well as specific feedback and suggestions that are reflected in the proposed master plan.

“He attended not only Steering Committee meetings but also served on subcommittees looking in detail at specific Elements of the plan,” Wilson wrote. “He was great and he had an impact.  Others with school ties also were valuable throughout the process, and the meeting held with the School Board’s Long Term Facilities Planning Committee was truly helpful, as was the listening session held at the high school.”

Wilson said she thinks the strong reactions to the Master Plan are based on false information.

“I understand that many people are deeply concerned and anxious about this proposed plan.  I strongly believe that reaction is unfounded, and in fact is based mostly on completely false representations of what the plan recommends,” Wilson wrote. “The plan does not envision or lay a foundation for new housing such as the developments you referenced – the Avalon on Witherspoon and Merwick-Stanworth neighborhoods – nor does it envision or recommend the kind or scale of court-mandated housing currently being built in proximity to the shopping center.”

Wilson said the plan also does not upzone swathes of Princeton. 

“The land use recommendations in the plan are conservative, based almost entirely on existing zoning in residential neighborhood,” Wilson wrote in the letter. “The land use recommendations in the plan are conservative, based almost entirely on existing zoning in residential neighborhoods, and with the explicit direction that “the development of zoning regulations warrants a detailed review of the spacial standards in each district to provide the most appropriate standards for each zone” (p. 40) and that Princeton should “require special and form-based standards that provide a framework for successful integration of new development within the scale and form of existing residential neighborhoods” (p. 37).  The growth this plan envisions and recommends is incremental, targeted, transit-oriented, and of a smaller scale than most of what is currently available. ” 

The Master Plan is the foundational document that is referenced for zoning and planning. Even if the document itself doesn’t change zoning, the Master Plan is key to approvals of future developments. The planning board must agree that plans conform to the Master Plan.

Planet Princeton asked Wilson why developers and supporters of increased density in town are so supportive of the Master Plan if it doesn’t actually set the town up for upzoning and increased density.

“The growth this plan envisions and recommends is incremental, targeted, transit-oriented, and of a smaller scale than most of what is currently available,” Wilson said. “As also stated in my letter, the land use recommendations in the plan are conservative, based almost entirely on existing zoning in residential neighborhoods, and with the explicit direction that “the development of zoning regulations warrants a detailed review of the spacial standards in each district to provide the most appropriate standards for each zone” (p. 40) and that Princeton should “require special and form-based standards that provide a framework for successful integration of new development within the scale and form of existing residential neighborhoods” (p. 37). 

Wilson said areas like the Institute neighborhood, the Western Section and Riverside, which are not easily walkable to the center of town and not adjacent to transit, are unaffected by the plan.

“Proponents of increased density do not believe this plan goes far enough, but as I understand it, they are pleased that it recommends opportunities to build smaller homes in close proximity to jobs, transit, shopping and services, to enable more sustainable and affordable lifestyles, and extend the opportunity of living in Princeton to a broader range of people,” Wilson said.

School Board President Dafna Kendal, when asked to respond to Wilson’s comments, said every member of the school board, with the exception of the representative from Cranbury, signed on to the letter to the planning board.

The town chose to fulfill its affordable housing obligations by supporting luxury apartment development with 20% affordable housing set-asides, plus one 100% affordable senior development.

Kendal said the school board knows the Master Plan is not calling for more large developments like AvalonBay. The board is concerned about increasing the density of development in town and its impact on the school system and students. Kendal brought up PILOT agreements and the burden the school district will face accommodating growth from the more than 1,100 housing units that will be built to show the pressures the school district is facing. “Anything that leads to meaningful enrollment growth is a concern, as our schools are approaching capacity and we already are experiencing tremendous stress to our operating budget.”

The full text of Wilson’s letter to the school board

Please consider this an open letter to the Board of Education and forward it to your colleagues.  I will copy members of the Planning Board and Mia will copy the Mayor and Council.

Thank you for sharing your and the Board of Education’s concerns.  Yours is a really difficult job and I appreciate the extraordinary time and effort you all devote to it.

Regarding the way the Frequently Asked Questions document addresses interaction with an input from the schools:  The School Board’s representative on the Master Plan Steering Committee, Brian McDonald, provided valuable insight and perspective as well as specific feedback and suggestions that are reflected in the proposed master plan. He attended not only Steering Committee meetings but also served on subcommittees looking in detail at specific Elements of the plan. He was great and he had an impact.  Others with school ties also were valuable throughout the process, and the meeting held with the School Board’s Long Term Facilities Planning Committee was truly helpful, as was the listening session held at the high school.

All members of the Steering Committee were asked to communicate with their networks, and those with ties to the public schools appeared to do so diligently.  Neither I nor the planning director, nor the consultant team was aware that other members of the School Board, beyond your designated representative and those who serve on the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee, wanted or expected to be interviewed separately.  I have no insight into why the master plan has never been discussed by your full board.

I understand that many people are deeply concerned and anxious about this proposed plan.  I strongly believe that reaction is unfounded, and in fact is based mostly on completely false representations of what the plan recommends.  The plan does not envision or lay a foundation for new housing such as the developments you referenced – the Avalon on Witherspoon and Merwick-Stanworth neighborhoods – nor does it envision or recommend the kind or scale of court-mandated housing currently being built in proximity to the shopping center.  (We understand the school board itself is preparing, or has prepared, enrollment projections based on these projects approved through the affordable housing court settlement.) 

Contrary to what many have been led to believe, the plan does not upzone swathes of Princeton.  The land use recommendations in the plan are conservative, based almost entirely on existing zoning in residential neighborhoods, and with the explicit direction that “the development of zoning regulations warrants a detailed review of the spacial standards in each district to provide the most appropriate standards for each zone” (p. 40) and that Princeton should “require special and form-based standards that provide a framework for successful integration of new development within the scale and form of existing residential neighborhoods” (p. 37).  The growth this plan envisions and recommends is incremental, targeted, transit-oriented, and of a smaller scale than most of what is currently available.  

I cannot speak to the question of PILOTs.  Those negotiations and arrangements are entirely outside the purview of the Planning Board. 

I understand your Board faces tremendous pressures, financial and otherwise.  You have the hardest job in the world and I admire you for doing it.  Knowing members of Council and some members of your Board, there is no question in my mind that all of you share an unshakeable commitment to ensuring our schools provide outstanding education and enrichment to the children of Princeton.

Regards,

Louise Currey Wilson

One Comment

  1. There is a difference between having input and having the ability to comment on the output. While the BOE may have had decent input during the process, that doesn’t mean that the input was reflected in the output in the way that the BOE wanted. Whether or not they had the right amount of input, they (and the rest of us) deserve time to react to the output.

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