A citizen group has filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court challenging the new Princeton Master Plan and the process used in developing the plan.
A Master Plan is a document, adopted by a planning board, that sets forth the vision and policies for land use as desired by the municipality.
The Princeton Coalition for Responsible Development is the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The leaders of the non-profit live near the Princeton Theological Seminary campus and characterize the group’s goal as promoting responsible land development and redevelopment in Princeton. The group is being represented by land-use lawyer Robert F. Simon of Herod Law in Warren.
Defendants in the lawsuit include the Municipality of Princeton, the Princeton Planning Board, and the governing body of Princeton.
The lawsuit challenges the Master Plan and Reexamination Report, which was prepared by Clarke Caton Hintz and adopted by the Princeton Planning Board on Nov. 30. The citizen group argues that the assumptions and resulting principles and policies of the new Princeton Master Plan fail to guide the use of land in the municipality in a manner that protects public health and safety and promotes general welfare. The group also claims that the Master Plan fails to include all of the components required under the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law.
“It was clear that the (Planning) Board intended to pass the 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report regardless of any public comments or objections received at the November 9 public hearing,” reads the lawsuit. “The ‘public input’ prior to the release of the draft 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report is laughable given the general nature of the surveys released, the ‘listening sessions’ that took place after the draft was mostly complete but not yet released to the public, and the short time period for public digestion of the 270+ page draft.”
The lawsuit notes that one Princeton Planning Board member responded to the concerns expressed by members of the public by telling them to calm down and stop being hysterical.
“It was his view that the land use plan was meant to be simplified, essentially telling the public that their concerns weren’t valid,” reads the lawsuit. “One resident rightfully took issue with this characterization of the reasonable
concerns articulated by the public, noting that even though Board members had told the public multiple times that the 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report doesn’t actually dictate zoning, it does have a direct effect on zoning and serves as a future guide for the Council to utilize when considering amendments to the land use ordinances for the municipality. Contrary to the Board’s assertions, the 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report is not only aspirational, its encouragement of wide zoning latitude will pave the way to greatly increased density throughout the Municipality.”
Specific recommendations of the 2023 Master Plan related to properties within the Area in Need of Redevelopment Study Area at the seminary’s Tennent Roberts campus on Stockton Street and surrounding properties are being challenged by the group. Developer James Herring wants to build 238 luxury apartment units on the Stockton Street property. Changes to the Master Plan would make the project consistent with the town’s plan. Residents argue in the lawsuit that there is no technical basis to support the departure from the recommendations outlined in prior Master Plan documents.
The use of a Master Plan Steering Committee that was comprised of the mayor, a Princeton Council representative appointed to the Princeton Planning Board, the board chairwoman, and ten stakeholders in the Princeton community to oversee the preparation of the 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report is being challenged in the lawsuit. The group alleges that the Master Plan Steering Committee improperly usurped the authority of the Princeton Planning Board and constitutes an illegal delegation of duty contrary to the requirements of the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law.
Residents are also challenging the sufficiency of the notice that was provided to the public and the failure to prepare and publish minutes for Master Plan Steering Committee meetings, the sufficiency of the notice of the public hearing on the adoption of the 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report, and the failure to adopt a memorializing resolution and publish the required notice of adoption of the 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report, contrary to the requirements of the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law. and the Open Public Meetings Act.
The citizen group is also challenging what it alleges is the Princeton Planning Board’s improper predetermination of a date to adopt the 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report without meaningful public input on the draft master plan documents. The group argues that the process was contrary to the law and Princeton’s Board, Commission, and Committee Members’ Handbook.
“The failure of the Planning Board to meaningfully engage with the public during the public hearings on November 9, 2023 and November 30, 2023 violates the OPMA and the Municipality’s own BCC handbook, which, amongst other guidelines, indicates that Board members should ‘remain open-minded, objective, and make no judgment until all of the available evidence pertaining to an issue has been submitted’,” reads the lawsuit. “The Board members’ conduct during the November 9 and November 30, 2023 public hearings, essentially gas-lighting members of the public and reducing any reasonable concern to mass hysteria or misunderstanding, and otherwise dismissing or disengaging from the public comments, objections and/or concerns evidences the Board’s disconnection from meaningful engagement with the public on the draft 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report.”
At the end of the Nov. 9 public hearing on the Master Plan, the chair of the planning board said that at the continuation of the hearing on Nov. 30, the board intended to vote on the 2023 Master Plan and would only allow factual errors to be corrected, with no substantive modifications to the plan. Concerns raised by the public were dismissed by board members as either misunderstanding the draft 2023 Master Plan or not wanting to face the reality of change. Shortly before the conclusion of the nearly five-hour public meeting, one planning board member suggested postponing the vote on the Master Plan so that discussion could continue and said that some residents had ideas that were worth following up on.
“However, despite this reasonable request, Chairperson Wilson indicated that she did not want to carry the vote to another meeting, and the Board unanimously voted to approve the 2023 Master Plan and Reexamination Report after midnight on November 30, 2023,” reads the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the resident group seeks to ensure that the process of land development and redevelopment in Princeton is conducted in a manner that is responsible and transparent and follows the law.
The outcome of the case could have significant implications for future land development and redevelopment in Princeton. The lawsuit is seeking a ruling from the court that voids the Princeton Planning Board’s approval of the Master Plan and determines that it was capricious, unreasonable, and contrary to law. The lawsuit also seeks to block the municipality from enacting any of the recommendations set forth in the Master Plan, including the introduction and adoption of land use ordinances and redevelopment plans. The group is also seeking attorney fees.
Planet Princeton reached out to lawyers for the citizen group and the Princeton Planning Board Thursday morning but had not received a response as of Thursday evening. Planning Board Chairwoman Louise Wilson declined to comment because of the litigation.
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