Princeton Council to hold special meeting on Dec. 18

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The Princeton Council plans to hold a special meeting next week to outline its proposed settlement agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center, which sued the town over its lack of affordable housing.

The meeting has tentatively been set for Dec. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the main meeting room at the municipal building at 400 Witherspoon St.

Mayor Liz Lempert announced on Dec. 9, that Princeton is close to reaching a settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center. If all goes as planned in finalizing the agreement, the council will outline the settlement in public and vote on the first set of items that would move the agreement forward.

“We have tried our best to protect the interests of the community by following the advice of legal counsel to keep negotiations confidential, while communicating with the community as fully as possible under these constraints,” Lempert said.

The Fair Share Housing Center sued Princeton, along with hundreds of New Jersey towns, over their failure to provide affordable housing under the so-called Mount Laurel doctrine, a landmark ruling in the history of New Jersey housing.

This Mount Laurel doctrine requires every town in New Jersey to provide its fair share of affordable housing. The doctrine grows out of lawsuits filed against Mount Laurel Township in the 1970’s.

Mount Laurel Township had rezoned for single-family-home developments, and did not provide for housing for less affluent residents. The lawsuits led to the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel I and Mount Laurel II rulings that required every town to provide its fair share of housing for low- and moderate-income households.

The proposed plan that Princeton Council expects to consider at its special meeting is similar to the draft plan presented to the public in May 2018, Lempert said. The town’s obligation remains the same at 753 affordable units, of which the town has received credit for 256 units that have already been built since 1999.

The May 2018 draft plan identified several locations in town for affordable housing development. Those sites included the Princeton University-owned Butler Tract on S. Harrison Street, the parking lot on Franklin Avenue opposite the Avalon Princeton apartment complex and the Princeton Shopping Center.

One major change to the 2018 draft plan is the addition of the former SAVE animal shelter site on the corner of Herrontown Road and Mount Lucas Road, Lempert said.

The Princeton Planning Board approved a 64-unit rental apartment development on the property earlier this year. All of the units are earmarked for affordable housing.

The town also has been in discussion with Avalon Bay Communities Inc. about development on Thanet Circle, off Terhune Road, Lempert said.

Affordable housing units could be included in any development project that Avalon Bay Communities Inc. constructs.

Lempert pointed out that Princeton has been committed to building affordable housing, an action that has been demonstrated by the many developments built throughout the town.

Among the most recent developments are Avalon Princeton, which is on the site of the former University Medical Center of Princeton on the corner of Witherspoon Street and Franklin Avenue, as well as the Merwick Stanworth development off of Bayard Lane.

Combined, there are 100 affordable housing units.

“In our negotiations with the Fair Share Housing Center, we have pushed for a plan that meets its obligation while at the same time supporting the goals of economic diversity, adequate housing for senior citizens and development rooted in the smart growth principles of building in areas with access to transit, shopping and jobs,” the mayor said.

One of the most difficult aspects of pulling the plan together has been the need to operate under the constraints of a legal process directed by the court, instead of an open planning process set out under regulations that should have been established by the State Legislature, she said.

“The meeting on Dec. 18, will be a significant milestone in our affordable housing planning process. However, it will not be the final step by any means,” Lempert said.

Assuming the town and the Fair Share Housing Center reach an agreement,the next step is a “fairness hearing” that has been tentatively scheduled for Feb. 7, Lempert said.

The court will decide at the fairness hearing whether the settlement agreement provides a realistic opportunity for the development of the court-mandated affordable housing units, she said.

Once the settlement is approved by the court, the town will be given several months to adopt zoning ordinances and to prepare documentation that shows the town is complying with the settlement agreement, Lempert said.