The D&R Canal Commission issued an extraordinary planning decision last month, over-ruling the recommendation of their own staff and rejecting a plan by Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study to develop part of their land as faculty housing. The case raises interesting questions about who is in charge of planning in Central Jersey…The Institute plan was approved unanimously by the Princeton Regional Planning Board- but required the sign-off of the D&R Canal Commission, which was set up in 1974 to oversee a large swathe of Central Jersey that was designated the ‘D&R Canal State Park’. By rejecting the proposed development, the Commission has made a strong statement, over-ruling municipal home rule.
The case raises questions about future development in Central Jersey. The ‘review zone’ of the D&R Canal Commission is very broad- covering large areas of Mercer, Monmouth, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Somerset Counties. Developments in this area risk the veto of the Commission if they are judged not to provide a ‘greater ecological benefit’ than not building. As part of the Institute plan, an area of land would be set aside for drainage that far exceeds the area that would be built on. The Commission’s hard line has raised the bar on what constitutes ‘greater ecological benefit’, and is likely to make new development more challenging and costly. That will delight preservationists, but risks pushing needed development to sites beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction, making local planning disorderly, and increasing vehicle-miles-traveled in the region.
The Institute will likely still build some version of their housing plan- either by appealing the Commission’s ruling or by purchasing more set-aside land to demonstrate ecological value. We already made a suggestion about how we think the Institute should expand faculty housing (obviously we’d like something more walkable). More generally, the case is interesting, because it raises the question of ‘what is the right level at which planning should occur’? There are potential benefits to planning on a regional basis, instead of devolving planning to New Jersey’s multitude of mini-municipalities, which have a track record of exclusionary zoning. Problems like traffic, housing need and social exclusion are rarely solved at the parochial level. Is the D&R Canal Commission the right body to do planning at a regional level? Not really. But could another regional board do a better job?