By Emily Landgraf
Rider University won an appeal to build a new parking lot consisting of 91 spaces at Westminster Choir College (WCC) in a ruling that went against residents’ efforts to reverse the Princeton Regional Planning Board’s decision last week.
The appeal took place at the Mercer County Courthouse on Friday, Feb. 18. After about two hours of argument from both sides, Judge Linda R. Feinberg ruled in favor of Rider, stating that the university seemed to have done “more than enough” to appease the neighbors and was “within its rights” to build the lot.
The plaintiffs have until 45 days after the decision to appeal it.
WCC currently has 285 parking spaces on campus to accommodate approximately 300 students as well as additional faculty, staff and visitors to the campus. According to students, this simply isn’t enough.
“We so desperately need more parking here,” said sophomore Liz Folger. “The entire school is on campus at 11:30 four days a week and it is literally impossible for everyone to find a parking spot.”
Senior Anthony Baron, WCC’s SGA president, also stressed the need for parking on campus.
“Parking is such a need on this campus,” he said. “Between the college students and the conservatory there are so many people here, especially on weekday afternoons. It’s a real problem at a school where half the population is commuter students.”
The residents of Linden Lane, which borders the WCC campus, acknowledge the need for more parking at WCC.
However, Bruce Afran, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that Rider had not provided all the vital facts and important details of the proposed plan, because of that, the planning board’s decision had been too hasty.
“It is apparent from the record that not all of the material facts were disclosed to my clients,” he said.
Afran said that an appeal is likely.
The phrase “material facts” refers to Rider’s master plan, which, according to the administration, has been abandoned.
The residents take issue with the fact that the master plan was not disclosed because within it was a tentative plan for a new performing arts center, which the plaintiffs claim would eat up existing parking spots.
However, the planning board’s lawyer argued that the issue of the master plan is a “red herring.”
“The master plan was never even shown to the trustees,” said Gerald Muller, the planning board’s lawyer. “The master plan is irrelevant. It was a draft and it was the promotional work that KSS [Architects] put up on their website.”
According to Muller, there was no reason for Rider to present its master plan, even if it were solid.
“It is not required that the applicant present the plans for the entire campus,” he said. “Decisions on a project-by-project basis are allowed.”
Rider’s lawyer, Mark Solomon, argued that there is no secret conspiracy with regard to a master plan.
“You can only build what you apply for, and what [Rider] applied for was a parking lot,” he said. “It is disturbing to be accused of misrepresenting. I would like to say on the record that they resent that, and it’s not true.”
Solomon also said that Rider had given the residents in the area adequate notice of discussions and hearings about the lot and had reopened the planning board hearings to the public after they had been closed.
Afran was then given a chance to rebut the statements made by Rider’s lawyers. Feinberg said that many of his statements were irrelevant or redundant.
“This is a bread-and-butter issue for my clients,” Afran argued, addressing the property value of the residents closest to the lot. “They have an interest as adjoining landowners.”
Despite the arguments presented against Rider, Feinberg found “the allegations against Rider alarming” and said she could find no evidence of a conspiracy.
Princeton resident and plaintiff Gregory Blank said he was not happy with the judge’s decision.
“To me, if it was a matter of just a parking lot, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “If they had wanted just a parking lot, they could have had it years ago over by Franklin Avenue with no complaint.”
Dr. Kenneth Fields, an associate professor in the Mathematics Department on the Lawrenceville campus and a Princeton resident, has taken a lead role in protesting the lot. He has put together a series of five YouTube videos that total about half an hour. He does not appear onscreen but discusses the problems he feels have been caused by parking structures on the campus, such as the loss of trees over several years’ time and flooding in the basements of some Linden Lane homes.
The parking lot, which was originally slated to be 50 feet away from neighboring yards, was moved back to 75 feet and is now set to be 109 feet away from those yards.
Trees ranging from six to eight feet tall, bushes and an “aesthetically pleasing” fence will act as buffers. There will also be 12 light poles standing 16 feet tall. The bulbs will be recessed so that neighbors won’t be bothered by the light. The lights will include photo sensors as well to detect daylight and automatically shut off.
Dean of Students Anthony Campbell said he was pleased with the outcome of the appeal.
“I think winning the case demonstrates that we have acted in good faith, and this moves us closer to building the parking lot that the students and the Westminster community need,” he said.
Folger said she is surprised that the process had taken so long despite how badly parking was needed at WCC.
“Having this parking lot will improve the lives of the students, faculty, and the overall Princeton community,” she said.