Bill aims to level grounds for private N.J. colleges

The original plans for the new Westminster Choir College parking lot were modified to include an underground detention basin to prevent runoff from seeping into Princeton residents’ properties.

By Christina LoBrutto

Much debate has arisen about a proposed state law that would exempt private universities, including Rider, from municipal land-use and local-zoning laws.

Three specialists from interest groups joined a panel at the Princeton Borough council meeting on Oct. 9, to discuss ways to fight the bill.

Mayor Yina Moore and her council members have been active in informing the public about Bill A2586 and encouraging them to take active measures to defeat it.

“It is very real and one of the purposes of holding this forum was to really make it clear that this one potential event could be the most devastating of any that this community could suffer, second to a bomb falling on it,” Moore said.

“It essentially will annihilate what the citizen base has at stake in this community.”

Already under the current law and a New Jersey Supreme Court decision, Rutgers v. Piluso (1972), public colleges and universities are exempt from local zoning jurisdiction in recognition of “the critical public mission served by those institutions in educating citizens of the state,” the bill states.

The justification for the bill is to create parity between public and private colleges and universities, which, according to the bill, shared the same mission.

In a letter to Mayor Moore, President Mordechai Rozanski expressed Rider’s support of the bill.

“Rider, along with New Jersey’s 14 other private colleges and universities, supports this bill,” he wrote.

“This proposed legislation, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Senate in June, simply gives private institutions the very same opportunities to expand, renovate, upgrade and improve as public universities throughout the state have had for some 40 years now.”

However, Michael Cerra, senior administrative analyst for the New Jersey League of Municipalities, feels that the bill would create quite the opposite of parity. Most of the league’s members oppose the bill.

“We think it’s a ‘disparity’ bill,” he explained of the league’s view.

“These are private institutions. It’s a rather concerning precedent to extend that privilege to private institutions because we could then make the case for other good causes, other good organizations that also serve some sort of public purpose. So we don’t accept the argument that it’s a parity bill. It’s a disparity as far as we’re concerned.”

While public institutions are exempt from local zoning laws, they are still required to maintain open public records and hold public meetings. They are also subject to numerous other regulations and political pressure.

Rozanski also discussed Rider’s role in the community in his letter.

“Our commitment to the communities that we call home — Lawrenceville and Princeton — is underscored daily, not just in the number of New Jersey students we educate or the local jobs we create, but in our diligence in being good citizens and neighbors,” he wrote.“We have excellent relations with the planning boards in our communities, and we have always been — and will continue to be — responsible and environmentally conscious when adding to or improving our buildings, grounds and facilities. In fact, we note with great pride that Rider is among the top 7 percent of green universities in the entire United States.”

Rider’s recently completed efforts to expand Westminster Choir College’s parking lot sparked opposition from neighbors concerned about water runoff, lighting, noise and sightlines. The new lot has plantings, drainage islands and a berm to protect neighboring homes.

Marvin Reed, the former mayor of Princeton Borough, who now serves on the planning board, argued at the forum that the planning hearings about the parking lot were beneficial.

“The newly built parking lot has an enormous, beautiful, underground detention basin,” he said. “If it had not been for the zoning and the fact that they had to appear before the planning board, we wouldn’t have been able to get them to deal with the water problem that was being created in the neighborhood.”

But Rider administrators, including Rozanski at convocation this year, cite the story of the parking lot as evidence that local boards can delay and add costs to universities’ projects. The project took 2 1/2 years and doubled in price after meetings with neighbors.
Dean of Students Anthony Campbell also expressed his support for the bill.

“We feel we should have the same opportunities to expand, upgrade and improve,” he said.“This bill will level the playing field and I think we should be able to have the same rights as public universities have.”

Charles Latini, president of the American Planning Association of New Jersey, feels otherwise.

“My opinion is, if you’re going to level the playing field, one would suppose that there’s actually a playing field,” Latini said.“If you’re going to wipe out the lines and take out all the fencing, then you won’t have a playing field and anybody can do whatever they want to do.”

He added that it is important to have communication between “towns” and “gowns.”

“Balancing the needs of the communities and the institutions is critical,” he said. “Wiping out the rules of the opportunities for that collaboration is absolute nonsense.”
The director of New Jersey’s Sierra Club, Jeff Tittel, also opposed the bill.

“If you give institutions a free hand to do whatever they want, they will do things that are short-sighted, narrow and what they think is in their best interest, but not necessarily what is in their long-term interest or the interest of the community,” Tittel said.

Henry Chou, a member of the land use section of the New Jersey State Bar Association, explained that the group adopted a unanimous resolution opposing the bill for legal reasons rather than policy reasons. They argue that the bill contradicts the goals of the municipal land use law and will create a special category of private landowners who will not be held to the same restrictions as other private owners.

He also shared the fear that this will open arguments from other organizations expecting the same exemptions, including hospitals and private high schools.

The managing director of Princeton Future, Sheldon Sturges, said his organization is also concerned.

“The council of Princeton Future voted today to support the efforts of Mayor Moore to oppose the New Jersey Assembly Bill A2586,” Sturges said. “Over its long history, the town of Princeton has enjoyed a cordial and extremely constructive relationship with the gown institutions of higher education.”

There were no representatives present at the forum from the private institutions that would benefit from this bill, such as Rider and Princeton University. Princeton Borough also has two other institutions that could benefit from the exemption: Princeton Theological Seminary and the Institute for Advanced Study.

The council and panel stressed that the public’s next step is to voice its opposition to the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee on Nov. 8.

“Now because it’s much more of a visible issue and more people are engaged and doing things, that makes a big difference,” Tittel said.“I think that public outcry makes a big difference. Just because you think it’s a done deal doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance to undo that deal.”

Additional reporting by Jen Maldonado.

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