The Appellate Court of New Jersey affirmed the Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to approve the early termination of a public easement allowing University construction plans on the Dinky Station on March 18.
As part of the University’s $330 million Arts and Transit Neighborhood, the Dinky train station is set to operate 464 feet south of its former location in the fall of 2014, an encroachment that required NJ Transit’s approval under the 1984 station purchasing agreement. NJ Transit requested the DEP’s approval and an advisory statement from the Historic Sites Council before allowing the encroachment.
However, Save the Dinky, a public organization dedicated to protecting Princeton’s historic train station, appealed the DEP’s decision with local resident Anne Neumann, who said that the agency did not have the expertise to aptly consider alternatives to the University’s project or to assess it effectively.
University attorney Jonathan Epstein said the court showed appropriate legal deference to NJ Transit, and that its decision was completely consistent with the applicable records and laws that were presented.
“We anticipated the outcome because we believe that our position is correct on all legal merits,” Epstein said, adding he does not believe the appellants would have any success on appeal.
The appellate court ruled against Save the Dinky by stating that NJ Transit’s assessment was in line with their transportation expertise, and that records indicate the Historic Sites Council held several public meetings on the encroachment before reaching a decision. The final opinion also says the DEP had the authoritative right to approve the encroachment.
“We are gratified that the lawsuit regarding the relocation of the Dinky has been resolved by rejecting the claims of the plaintiffs, and we are confident that the other two will be similarly resolved in due course,” University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua said in response to the decision, referencing two pending cases challenging the project’s municipal land use.
Neumann said the Historic Sites Council should have seen alternatives, most notably the construction of a light rail system that she said could maintain public right of way.
“I disagreed with their decision, and I would say that they didn’t give full weight to the arguments on behalf of Save the Dinky and myself,” Neumann said.
Although the Historic Sites Council was asked to assess the encroachment in conjunction with the DEP, the DEP Commissioner was given the final call.
“We assume that it was a foregone conclusion that the Christie-appointed head of the DEP would turn down any rejection of the plan by the New Jersey Historical Sites Council because [New Jersey Governor Chris Christie] is a trustee of the University, and he had already written a letter saying that he favored this change,” Neumann said.
Neumann also said that the University submitted its plans for the project to the Princeton Regional Planning Board four days after meeting with the Historic Sites Council, an adviser to the DEP, to which it did not submit those plans. Neumann said she thought the University almost certainly had the plans ready for the meeting, but chose not to disclose them.
Furthermore, appellants claimed the DEP should have had a public hearing with testimony to provide a reliable record that the new transportation development would be in the best interest of the public, Save the Dinky attorney Virginia Kerr said.
“In reality, it was really the University that was shaping this application, and New Jersey Transit was sort of a mouthpiece for the University,” Kerr said.
Kerr noted that she was not really surprised, as it is not uncommon for appellate courts to pay deference to decisions made by official agencies. However, she added that the ruling was a loss to the Princeton community and to those who care about historic resources.
“Some people say it’s toothless,” Kerr said of the Historic Places Act, which she hoped would be a strong tool to protect the Dinky. “This removes another tooth.”
Save the Dinky will continue its efforts to reform current transportation plans, Neumann said, and will decide whether or not to appeal the ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court within the next few weeks.
Save The Dinky President Anita Garoniak did not respond to requests for comment.