By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
The dispute over the Institute for Advanced Study faculty housing project this week saw the group fighting the development threaten another lawsuit, while the IAS said its right to build is “not in doubt.”
The Princeton Battlefield Society said it plans to sue the IAS and two of its contractors, unless federal or state environmental regulators stop the 15-unit-development that allegedly is destroying wetlands on land where fighting occurred during the Revolutionary War.
The Society has claimed the federal Clean Water Act is being violated by the IAS through the filling in of wetlands that feed into a stream that feeds into the federally regulated Stony Brook.
On Thursday, the nonprofit organization filed a 60-day notice with the IAS and its engineering firm and construction contractor, a required step to give time for either the federal Environmental Protection Agency or state Department of Environmental Protection to step in, said Society attorney Bruce I. Afran by phone Friday. Either regulatory agency could take action to make the IAS stop, he said, but if they don’t, the Society will sue in federal court in early March at the end of the 60 days.
Mr. Afran said the Battlefield Society had been contemplating this legal maneuver, its latest stratagem to prevent the IAS from building on land that the Institute owns.
“Without question we were thinking about this,” he said.
He said that if the IAS and the two contractors are found liable, fines would top $2 million a month for all three entities. The IAS is intending to build with work getting started to clear the area, on around six acres of its grounds.
“The notice that was given to the Institute does not raise any issues that have not already been reviewed and rejected in the course of all of the approvals received on the faculty housing project, including subsequent judicial review of those approvals,” IAS spokeswoman Christine Ferrara said Friday.
For its part, the DEP had no comment on Friday.
The Battlefield Society is pressing to preserve land where the battle of Princeton was fought in January 1777. In the spot where the development is slated to go, George Washington staged his winning counterattack that sent American forces to a victory that changed the course of the war.
The group’s efforts have included meeting with state lawmakers and officials.
On Monday, members of the organization met privately with DEP Commissioner Bob Martin to make their case that wetlands are on the site and that the IAS allegedly had concealed that fact from state regulators in 2000 when seeking permission to build the project. Mr. Afran contended that by that information being withheld, there also was no federally required review of the impact the project would have on the battlefield.
“What the Institute has done, by concealing its own wetlands reports for this site, is to evade both federal environmental laws and federal historic preservation laws,” Mr. Afran claimed.
But the IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf, breaking his public silence, this week sent a letter to IAS board of trustees, faculty and others in which he declared “our right to build is not in doubt.” He said the IAS has all the approvals, which have survived court challenges the Battlefield Society has brought.
Still, in the name of historic preservation, the IAS has faced calls from lawmakers and others to stop the development. In late December, a state Senate committee urged the DEP to halt the project after hearing testimony from the Battlefield Society. An IAS representative did not attend the hearing, and in his letter this week, Mr. Dijkgraaf set out to explain why.
“We were not informed of the hearing by legislative officials and were not asked to attend,” he wrote in his letter. “In fact, we learned of the hearing from the press.”
As the Society pursues the legal track, Mr. Afran said a nonprofit group is willing to increase its offer to buy the property and other land from the IAS. The Civil War Trust, a Washington D.C.-based organization that saves battlefields, twice offered to buy the property, including a $4.5 million offer that the IAS turned down. But Mr. Afran said the organization is willing to go to $5 million.
“We’re willing to talk about a price tag. We always have been, and will be,” said Trust spokesman Jim Campi on Friday.
He did not get into specific dollar amounts, above the $4.5 million offer, that his organization would be willing to spend for the land. His side wants to sit down at the negotiating table with the IAS, even as he had hard words for its leadership.
“The irresponsibility of the Institute’s leadership here is astounding,” Mr. Campi said. “They’re destroying the reputation of a world-renown institution over fifteen faculty houses.”
Yet Mr. Dijkgraaf said his side has tried to work with the critics.
“You may not know that the Institute, early on and on more than one occasion, attempted to engage the Battlefield Society in direct conversation — using the good offices of then-Congressman Rush Holt — and two of the most renowned preservationist historians in the country to do so, only to be rebuffed,” he wrote. “Despite the opposition’s refusal to engage, our sensitivity to preservation is evident in the project we are about to construct.”
“I think it’s a total figment of their imagination,” said Battlefield Society President Jerry Hurwitz on Friday in response. “They never, ever tried to engage us in negotiation.”
For his part, Mr. Afran took Mr. Holt to task for taking a job with the IAS if he was supposed to have been an impartial mediator. In December 2014, the IAS announced it had named Mr. Holt a director’s visitor, a post that he held until he became the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February.
“It’s simply a reward for lending his name to their efforts,” Mr. Afran said of Mr. Holt.
Mr. Holt, a Democrat who spent eight terms in Congress, could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Hurwitz said he recalled Mr. Holt and his aides attending a meeting with the Battlefield Society and others, at the Princeton Public Library in 2010, to discuss a federally funded study of the battlefield. He said that represented the extent of Mr. Holt’s involvement, and that Mr. Holt was never a mediator.
“He just wasn’t interested. Here he is advocating battlefield preservation for everybody, except us,” said Mr. Hurwitz, whose wife served as an unpaid intern in Mr. Holt’s congressional office. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see Mr. Holt’s connection with the Institute.”
Mr. Holt used to advertise himself as a rocket scientist, a message that his supporters used to have on bumper stickers on their cars.
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer