Hospitals, churches, private schools and non-profit agencies could someday be exempt from local zoning regulations if legislation currently before the New Jersey State Assembly becomes law, officials say.
It’s all because of A2586, a bill that would exempt private universities and colleges from land use law – allowing those schools to develop without zoning constraints or review by local planning boards.
On Tuesday, Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore and members of Borough Council hosted a public forum to discuss what they consider to be a “slippery slope” that could eventually decimate local zoning in the name of institutions serving the public good.
Both Princeton Township and Princeton Borough have passed resolutions opposing the Assembly bill. The bill’s counterpart in the Senate, S1534, passed in June.
In Lawrence Township, members of township council passed a resolution during their Aug. 21 meeting voicing their opposition to A2586 and S1534.
Rider University in Lawrence Township would be covered under the legislation, while Princeton has four institutions that would be covered: Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary, The Institute for Advanced Study and Westminster Choir College.
Together, the four Princeton institutions own 60 percent of property in Princeton Borough, Moore said.
Those who support the pending legislation say it aims for parity between public and private colleges. Currently, public colleges need only to provide a courtesy review to local planning officials, while private institutions are subject to all local land use laws.
But officials argue that rather than provide parity, the legislation would only offer private institutions unchecked development.
“If you give institutions free reign, they will do things that are short-sighted, narrow-minded and what they think is in their own best interest- but not necessarily what is in the best interest of the community,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and former member of several municipal planning boards and environmental commissions. Tittel was one of three speakers invited to Tuesday’s forum.
Should the legislation pass, institutions could ignore local setback requirements, buffers, design standards, even local environmental commissions, Tittel said. They could use a town’s sewer and water and when the municipality has to buy more capacity, taxpayers would foot the bill. Projects that could impact local roads and traffic would automatically be approved while taxpayers would have to pay for infrastructure improvements.
Charles Latini Jr., president of the American Planning Association’s New Jersey chapter, agreed.
“The next thing you know, we won’t have control over the future and viability of our communities,” he said.
About 30 people attended the forum at Princeton Borough Hall. There were no representatives from Princeton University, the Seminary, Westminister Choir College or IAS. Several residents spoke; none were in favor of the proposed legislation.
Princeton officials want citizens to get involved: contact legislators and friends, sign an online petition opposing the Assembly bill, and speak out against the bill when the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee takes it up for discussion, probably in November.
Tittel suggested what’s being proposed in New Jersey would mimic what’s happening nationwide, with universities partnering with large-scale developers to make substantial profit.
Two local state Assembly members, Jack Ciattarelli (R-District 16) and Reed Gusciora (D-District 15) told officials on Tuesday that they oppose the proposed legislation.
But Gusciora said defeating the legislation will be an uphill battle.
“I think this is pretty much wired to pass,” he said.