Princeton’s Democratic Council members are at loggerheads over a potential open space purchase off Mt Lucas Road. Proponents argue that the purchase is necessary to prevent development of 20.4 acres of land, and to provide a link between existing open space to the west and east. But the amount of land that would potentially be subject to development is much smaller. If construction went ahead according to a site plan presented last November, townhouses would be built on just 9 acres of the land, with the majority of the site being permanently protected under a conservation easement (a so-called ‘cluster development’). That means that the town would be preserving just 9 acres of land, for a price – $4.4 million – that seems high.
The town would have to take on debt to buy the site, with the hope that the state would provide NJ tax dollars at a later date to refund us. But there’s a small chance that the money might not be forthcoming, which would mean that the town would be saddled with the full cost. It’s really a very small chance, but Council Members Jo Butler and Patrick Simon refused to go along with the land purchase as long as the risk is outstanding. The Friends of Princeton Open Space group has now launched an email campaign to try to get them to change their mind.
Meanwhile Bernie Miller, the most senior member on Council, has said he wants nothing to do with it. Quoted in the ‘Packet’, he said that existing open space is under-utilized and that the land purchase was a bad deal. Last year, advocates also said that management of Princeton’s open space was suffering from a lack of management. At this time, the town of Princeton does not even publish a map showing the location of existing open space holdings, several of which have limited access or no access at all. Mayor Lempert said that attention should shift from land acquisition to stewardship. But now, it seems, everyone wants more land again. Everyone except Bernie Miller that is.
One reason for the land acquisition is clear: to prevent the construction of the townhouses. Council Member Jenny Crumiller- a resident of Princeton’s upscale Western Section – called the townhouse proposal “undesirable and, frankly, tacky“. If Princeton had plenty of smaller homes, that might not be a big problem, but that is not the case. The town is authorizing new home construction at a very slow pace, despite a huge need for housing for retirees, many of whom are seeking to ‘downsize’. If they don’t live in new townhouses, they may look instead at smaller homes near town – such as in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, where property prices are rising fast, bringing challenges to existing residents who risk being excluded.
Building on part of the Mt Lucas land would certainly have some environmental consequences. But not building would also have consequences- and not just in terms of where the $4.4 million would come from. Princeton house prices increased by 9% last year, far out-pacing inflation, as demand for smaller homes out-strips supply. Unless the idea is for everybody’s mom to move to Florida, more homes are going to have to be built somewhere. If we’re going to pay a developer not to build off Mt Lucas Road, we need to allow more building somewhere else (preferably somewhere with easy walking/transit access to amenities).
The Mount Lucas land deal is back on Princeton Council’s agenda for their Feb 8 meeting. In the meantime, Princeton just completed another open space acquisition next to the Battlefield site, and the town looks set to conserve an additional 50 acres of land (without spending any public money) as part of a cluster development off Herrentown Road. The Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space are also seeking feedback on what to do with their huge new 400-acre Mount Rose Preserve, which is just over the Princeton town line near Province Line Road. To fill out their survey to show your preferences for how the new Mount Rose Preserve is managed, go to this link.
The proposed luxury townhouse development is restricted to age 55 and up, with large units estimated to cost over a million. With the relatively young age limit, these types of development are often gated and their true aim is to keep children out of the neighborhood. They are promoted as bringing in rateables while saving taxpayers from having to educate children. This is what I find “tacky.” The council has removed the zoning that would allow this type of development, but not before this developer got their application in.