By Jess Hoogendoorn
It took two Princeton Regional Planning Board meetings, each one lasting 4½ hours, for the university to get permission to build a new parking lot with up to 91 spaces on the Westminster campus.
The most recent meeting started at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, and ended around midnight, when Rider’s request to construct a new parking lot won unanimous approval from the eight board members. The plan met with fierce resistance from residents whose homes border the Westminster campus.
Concerns ranged from flooded basements caused by excess runoff, to light and noise pollution. Throughout the meeting, Rider stressed its need for additional parking.
“We are bursting at the seams,” said Westminster Dean Robert Annis. “We need parking and that parking is necessary to maintain the quality and vitality of our campus.”
About 285 parking spaces on campus must accommodate the approximately 300 student-driver population as well as faculty and staff drivers. There are also other drivers who come to the Westminster Conservatory and visitors who attend events on campus. The university said it needs a total of about 444 spaces.
“I hope you will believe us when we say we need this parking,” said Mark Solomon, an attorney representing Rider.
University representatives arrived at the meeting with a revised plan, addressing issues raised by neighbors at an October meeting.
The parking lot was originally expected to be 50 feet away from neighbors’ property but was moved back 75 feet. However, one resident said she wanted the lot to be at least 100 feet away from her property.
“They went back from 50 to 75,” she said. “It’s not enough. Go back 100. They have plenty of land. I have one little rotten backyard.”
Rider also added more trees in its plan to act as a buffer against lights and noise from the parking lot. A wooden fence was also suggested, but the neighbors and Planning Board decided against it. Catch basins will also be constructed to hold the excess runoff during rainstorms and help prevent flooding in the basements of the Princeton residents.
Lights that were once 50 feet from the neighbors’ property will now be 120 feet away. The parking spots are now positioned so headlights won’t shine in the direction of the neighbors, and the streetlights are designed so that the light will shine directly down without extra spillage.
“We took those [concerns] to heart and have worked diligently to be responsible,” said Solomon.
The new lot will contain 71 spaces, plus 20 “banked.” This means that Rider plans to build 71 spaces, but if there is enough money left in the budget, another 20 will be added. The new parking lot will take up about one acre of Westminster’s 18-acre campus.
However, some neighbors were concerned that Rider would not be able to maintain this new parking lot. One resident, who has lived there for more than 30 years, asked, If Rider is worried about its financial situation now, how is it going to pay for the upkeep of the lot?
The neighbor was also skeptical about Rider’s commitment to working with the neighbors. She said problems in the past were only dealt with because the Planning Board made Rider find solutions.
“We just want to make sure we aren’t stuck for the rest of our lives with lights and concrete and water in the basement,” she said.
Now that the plan has been approved, in order to appeal, the neighbors would have to go through the county Superior Court.
In October, the Planning Board asked Rider to consider building on a different plot of land that would not impact the concerned neighbors. However, the open, three-acre space has been deemed a wetland and cannot be built on.
Rider hired Gary Dean, a professional engineer and a certified professional planner, to conduct a study to ascertain how many parking spots the Westminster campus needs. The initial reaction of the engineer was that Westminster needed at least 150 more spots. He observed that “parking is spilling over into public streets” and other undesirable places. Dean said vehicles are constantly parked in undesignated areas throughout the day.
Of the approximately 1,600 drivers who come to the Westminster campus (this includes faculty, staff, students and community members who use the Conservatory), only about 17 percent are accommodated. The additional parking lot only brings that percentage up to 23.5 percent, according to Dean.
Although Westminster is in need of more parking, some residents remain concerned. A lawyer represented a group of the neighbors at the meeting. Among the residents represented was Dr. Kenneth Fields, a professor of mathematics on the Lawrenceville campus.
The residents advanced a sort of conspiracy theory about Rider’s planning. In an attempt to undermine the university’s credibility, Fields pulled up several pages from the university’s Web site with statements about fundraising for additional projects. He also showed pages from an architectural company’s Web site with plans for a possible new building on Westminster’s campus. The neighbors’ lawyer claimed Rider has a secret master plan for developing the Westminster campus and is refusing to release it to the Planning Board.
Mike Reca, associate vice president of Auxiliary Services, said there is no master plan, but when there is, the Planning Board will see it.
Although many of the neighbors were against the proposed parking lot, one woman who is a neighbor of the Choir College testified to how responsive Rider has been. She spoke of complaints in the past about a dumpster and noise that Rider addressed. She also expressed concern about parking, stating that cars are being parked on people’s lawns, and service vehicles as well as residents cannot park in front of houses. She said she supports the parking lot “100 percent.”
Although Rider representatives explained that they have tried to work with the neighbors, they weren’t anticipating that the plan would be welcomed.
“We don’t expect our neighbors on Linden Lane to like it,” said Solomon.
The completion date of the parking lot has yet to be determined.