PRINCETON: Council approves buying land on Princeton Ridge

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By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Councilwoman Jo S. Butler provided the critical vote on Monday to enable the town to buy 20.4 acres between Route 206 and Mount Lucas Road in the Princeton Ridge for $4.4 million.
By a 4-2 vote, she joined three other council members to adopt a bond ordinance financing an acquisition that is going to be paid mainly through state and county funds. Supporters of the purchase said the deal would preserve a heavily wooded natural area that could have been turned into a residential development.
Advocates were lobbying Ms. Butler and other council members in hopes of securing the critical fourth vote to for the ordinance, given that Mayor Liz Lempert was not permitted to break a 3-3 tie in this instance. At Monday’s meeting, they urged officials to move ahead with the deal.
Wendy Mager, president of Friends of Princeton Space, one of the groups helping finance the deal, said the 20 acres represented a “critical piece” in the effort to protect land on the Ridge. She said the property is “directly adjacent” to about 15 preserved acres of open space “on the east side of Route 206.”
One former township official told the governing body that buying the land was the right thing to do for the community and the environment.
“I cannot understand how anybody could oppose this bond ordinance,” said ex-mayor Phyllis Marchand. “If you’re looking for bottom line and saving money, the best way to do it is to buy open space.”
When it came time for council to chime in, Councilwoman Heather H. Howard said she shared the view of supporters who see the property as “ecologically valuable, critical acquisition.”
Officials felt pressure to act, given there is a pending application for 36 age-restricted town houses for people 55 and old. Princeton Land Development LLC, the contract purchaser of the property.
But Councilman Bernard P. Miller, who voted against the ordinance, questioned whether the developer “has any real intention of building age-restricted housing or if the developer is simply trying to get out of what now looks like an unattractive business deal by selling the property to the municipality.”
The purchase is being paid with a $2.2 million Mercer County grant, $1.875 million from the state, private funds totaling $253,000 from Friends of Princeton Open Space and pipeline company Williams. The town will provide $72,000 to cover the rest.
A large chunk of the state money, $1.7 million, originally was intended to reimburse the town for past open space projects. Instead, officials opted to redirect that money toward the land purchase, and are counting on more state money to be available in the future.
At times, Ms. Butler sounded as if she might vote against the ordinance. She said the $1.7 million could be used for “myriad other projects,” such as open space purchases or historic preservation.
But when she cast her yes vote during the roll call, a slight murmur and then applause came from the audience that drowned out Councilman Patrick Simon making his no vote.

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