On Tuesday night, Princeton Council is having a special public meeting to set priorities for 2019. This meeting focuses on ‘User Friendly Government’, and while it’s not entirely clear what this means, it is certainly true that the town could benefit greatly from expanding public participation in local planning. 2018 has been marked by two local planning fiascos. The $130 million bond referendum proposed by Princeton Public Schools (see photo above) was canceled as local residents realized that the money would be spent on plans that had received little or no public consideration. Meanwhile, the town’s plans to address a state requirement to build hundreds of new affordable homes remain shrouded in secrecy, despite the town promising earlier this year to complete the process by August. Both processes would have benefited from more public input. Can this be achieved?
The town’s own ‘Advisory Planning Districts Task Force’ made recommendations in 2014 about how to improve public participation in planning. These included making development applications available in an electronic format, placing more materials on the municipal website, and doing pro-active outreach to the community about land use plans. Most of these recommendations have not been implemented. Basically the only way for a member of the public to find out about a development application is to go down to City Hall during office hours and ask to see the plan. They will then get a huge roll of architectural drawings, which are baffling to most non-professionals. The town should put these materials online, in a format that could be understood by everybody. This would make the planning process more transparent, and get more informed public comment.
Princeton’s planning and zoning meetings are not easily accessible by members of the public. The meetings are very long, which means that only people with a lot of free time can attend. This excludes most people with families and many working people, and ensures that comments are mostly drawn from the same small group of people. Extraordinarily, it is not even possible for members of the public to submit comments to the Planning Board by email – only comments made at the actual meeting are allowed. These archaic procedures ought to be modernized. Members of the public should be able to view planning applications online, and submit comments online. In principle, members of the community could submit comments using their library card to ensure only people from Princeton can participate, and to prevent people posting multiple comments.
As an example of how to make planning more democratic, Princeton could look to the recent ‘Trenton 250’ masterplan. Trenton did an unprecedented amount of public outreach to create this plan, using multiple methods to ensure that comments were received from a wide cross-section of the community. In contrast, Princeton’s community master plan is written by a small group of people, meeting during the day, with essentially no public comment. It’s not clear when this ‘Master Plan Subcommittee’ meets or what they talk about, because no minutes are made available.
Despite these issues, the town has made some progress in the last year. The town finally modernized street parking, and the municipal website. The recent ‘Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative’ involved a number of public meetings and featured its own special website. This task force successfully developed guidelines for the design of new homes, which are likely to be popular among many people in the town in the long-term. It is good to see the town doing some kind of proactive planning again, and credit is owed to planning consultant Jim Constantine, who helped guide this process. By building on these small successes, the town could make 2019 a year where local planning becomes more inclusive and more productive. For issues like the proposed public school expansion, which is sure to be a hot topic in 2019, inclusive planning seems essential.