A lawsuit challenging the University’s zoning rights for the Arts and Transit Neighborhood was dismissed by the Mercer County Superior Court. A group of local residents led by Walter and Anne Neumann challenged the town’s zoning agreement with the University over allegations of quid pro quo transactions, spot zoning and Municipal Land Use Law violations.
“This is a substantial victory for the University and probably the most significant win that we’ve had in any of the multiple cases that have been filed by the objectors trying to stop the University’s Arts and Transit Project,” University defendant Jonathan Epstein, a partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath, said.
The $330 million Arts and Transit Neighborhood has faced criticism from local residents because it demands the repositioning and alteration of Princeton’s historic Dinky station, which has led to six lawsuits over a range of complaints.
The zoning lawsuit was first brought to court in September 2013 by local attorney Bruce Afran and focused on discussions between the University and the former Borough and Township, which had been consolidated to form the town of Princeton in January of that year.
Before zoning for the project was approved, the University signed a memorandum of understanding with the former Borough and Township in 2011, offering $850,000 toward a study of the community’s long-term transit needs. Plaintiffs alleged that this payment led to the subsequent zoning approval in December 2011.
“The evidence at trial plainly showed that the University engaged in the illegal purchase of zoning,” Afran said, alleging that a Borough administrator said the University’s contribution would not be forthcoming if the ordinances were not passed.
Afran added that the University’s council representative Richard Goldman was allegedly “in the room” when the hearings took place and chose to remain silent about the University’s alleged quid pro quo agreement.
However, the case advisory states that there was no proof of a quid pro quo agreement and that such claims were speculative.
“It was perfectly legal because one was not conditioned on the other,” Epstein said of the two transactions between the University and Princeton.
The case advisory also states that the adoption of zoning ordinances did not involve any circumvention of the procedures required by Municipal Land Use Law, which gives towns the power to enact a master plan to set land-use priorities and adapt zoning ordinances to dictate location and form of development.
Plaintiffs also accused the University of spot zoning, where zoning is applied to a parcel of land within a larger zoned area even though the rezoning does not comply with the governing body’s master plan and current zoning restrictions.
“An entire section of the community was literally wiped away by a change in zoning to benefit solely the University,” Afran said.
Afran said the Arts and Transit Neighborhood will not benefit the town community as new amenities are not geared toward town residents, the station will be located farther away and a historic site will be damaged.
“The University could have kept the station and built the coffee shop in the same structure,” Afran said, referring to construction plans. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a University destroying historic buildings on its properties.” Afran also said that the University’s architect agreed that the building’s complete demolition could have been avoided.
The court ruled that such accusations were unfounded because zoning ordinances were the result of a comprehensive process that fully complied with the applicable law.
“[Determining the zoning ordinances] involved multiple meetings by both the governing bodies of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough, multiple planning board meetings and community meetings, all of which were part of the ordinance adoption process,” Epstein said.
He explained that the law only requires that zoning be referred by an area’s governing body to the planning board, which then must review its consistency with the master plan.
Plaintiffs also argued that the new zoning inhibited some of the area’s previously permitted functions and reduced the town’s taxable properties in ways that are inconsistent with the master plan. Afran said the Township and Borough did not publicly justify their decision to infringe on the master plan.
The advisory states that the ordinances were substantially consistent with the plan and that even if there were inconsistencies between the ordinances and the master plan, as alleged by the plaintiffs, these were not substantial enough to invalidate the ordinances.
Plaintiffs will definitely appeal allegations concerning the memorandum, Afran said, and are still considering appealing the other allegations.
Afran said that because the project is still in its early construction stages, the court could still impact the University’s plans.